Saturday, 27 April 2013

Differentiation thirty different ways

Based on your reading of this blog, fill the gaps with the words below.

 I ________ often use _________ in my lessons. There are __________on my shelves and in _________across schools all over the country. They can be _________ to teach something or prove a point, but often, for me, they get in the way of real _____________.

 cupboards          textbooks         don’t          hundreds      handy        learning

My relationship with textbooks is like that of a messy divorce. Occasionally, we see each other, but often there is an undercurrent of hatred, even when we are being formal to each other. In the past, I have used textbooks, but the rest of the time they sit in my cupboards feeling unloved and neglected.

If I am honest, my hatred of textbooks comes from my own childhood – doesn’t it always? I remember one geography teacher who taught lessons via the form of a textbook. They didn’t jazz things up by showing a video. They didn’t spruce things up with a card sorting activity. They didn’t spice things up with a drama activity. They just made us work through the textbook from start to finish. It was that bad that, if my memory serves me right, I can still remember the author of said book: David Waugh. The lesson planning must have been great and easy. Lesson one: complete chapter one.  Lesson two: complete chapter two. Lesson three: complete chapter three. That teacher must have found teaching ‘stressful’. The work wasn’t differentiated or adapted for the audience, and what happened as a result: I got bored. I got so bored that a friend and I started writing in the textbooks (sorry, the god of teaching – I will atone for my sin). We wrote silly things like ‘go to page 21’ and ‘go to 97’. In fact, we would lead readers on a merry dance as they searched and followed these instructions and finally got to the final comment: you stupid idiot. I do think students haven’t got the imagination these days. I recall a meeting when teachers were berated for writing on a behaviour log that ‘a student had written penises on a book’. We were told that this was unacceptable. A fellow English teacher and I looked at each other and responded together: ‘Do you think they mean ‘peni’ is the acceptable way to write it down?’.   

It will be no surprise to you that I was sent out of lessons in geography. The textbook isn’t my excuse, but it was a starting point. As soon as I moved away from textbooks, I loved geography and I adored human geography in Year 12 and 13. In fact, I think I could have easily been a geography teacher, if it wasn’t for me loving books.  Anyway, back to my point: textbooks. I was taught in the 90s and I had a glut of textbooks. Tricolor books in French. Waugh’s books in Geography.  Science thankfully didn’t use any, because we spent too long burning things and the books would make the school even more flammable than it was.  My school did blow up when I was in Year 7, which is clearly another juicy blog entry for later. I am not exaggerating for comedy value; it did blow up in 1990 and a piece of it ended in a friend’s garden.

As I entered teaching, I made myself a promise. A promise to never to use textbooks for whole lessons. A promise to never rely on a textbook to do the teaching for me. Yes, they are glossy and tempting like the modern equivalent of Sirens, but I will be Jason and tie myself to the mast of my principles and not give in. I did just that until last term. I was seduced in such an underhand way.

Like many last year, I became a fan of the 'Marginal Gains' concept and I was inspired to use it by Alex Quigley’s superb blog here. The concept focuses on the smaller things and improving those and making ‘marginal gains’ in the learning, rather than focusing on big things. I am not doing it enough justice here as many before have done it in a far better way. I like the concept for its simplicity. You focus on precise things rather than focus lots of things. I no longer spin hundreds of plates and now focus on one single stitch in the tapestry of learning. My last blog proves the point really.

I started using the wheel for marginal gains in lessons. It became a great tool for charting progress and seeing what students needed to focus on.  At the start of my preparations for the creative writing assessment of GCSE English, I got students to colour in their wheel. I separated the different strands of the skills that the task demanded and asked students to colour in the skills that they were confident at using.  They could colour things in partly, fully or leave blank to show their level of skill. This became a great way for me to spot the areas needing improvement and it became a great way for students to understand where they needed to focus their efforts, when writing.

Sadly, the wheels also left me with the old conundrum: how can I teach thirty different things to thirty different students in two week’s lessons? Step up the textbooks. I hunted out every textbook in the English department. I then spent half an hour and jotted down the page numbers relating to a particular skill.  I made a PowerPoint slide with all of these on it.  A bit like this:

Semi colons    Blue 2      Blue 99

Using adverbs    Yellow 34    Green 10

Adjectives   Pink 34   Blue 23

Commas  Red 56     Blue 56

I kept to colours as it made it easier for me to type and easier for students to identify the book they needed. Therefore, if a student had a weakness in commas, for example, they knew that the red and blue textbook had something to help them.

So, I spent part of a lesson getting students to wade through some textbooks and focusing on a particular skill. They had to summarise the main points and complete the activities in the book, relating to their area of focus. I had differentiated thirty different times and it took me very little time to prepare thanks to the textbooks. It allowed me time to help a few students on a particular aspect while the rest worked things out for themselves.

To be honest, I have only done this once with a class, but I feel that it has got some potential and that is why I am sharing it with you. Thirty students doing thirty different things is likely to have more people unsure of what they need to do, but if they did it again and again they will develop the skill and, hopefully, become a bit more independent with their learning. Differentiating can be a messy business and I think this covers some part of it. It is personalised learning made easy.   

Like a divorcee, I can meet up again and really enjoy a moment with a textbook, but then I realise that we were meant to be apart. We were meant to be friends, not lovers. We should see each other occasionally, but we should never live together.

Thanks for reading,


1 comment:

  1. Great post Chris, thanks for sharing. I think I may build some revision lessons around this idea for my year 11s!


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.