On Radio 2, Simon Mayo runs a segment called confessions in which people can call in and admit something they've done. On his first such podcast of 2017, a teacher called in. The teacher had taken a group of children to an athletics competition and he had been put in charge of manning the shot put area. Students had come and gone having completed their throws but one particularly strong looking student turned up, chose his shot and threw it a huge distance. At the end of the competition, the results were announced and that student had broken all historical records in the area for the shot put. The student was put through to the national competition to represent the area.
A few weeks later, and having put all thoughts of the competition out of his mind, the teacher received a phone call. During the conversation, he was reminded of manning the shot put and, particularly, the student who had thrown the shot a great distance. He said he remembered the student and was asked which coloured shot he had given the student. The teacher replied, "coloured shots?" He was then told that different shots held different weights. Apparently, the student who went to the national competition representing the area based on his amazing throw at the local event had, to his embarrassment and that of his family, been completely unable to lift the shot at the regional final!
I was reminded of this story when recently a teacher told me about an issue she had unearthed in her school. A teacher had come from Y6 to Y5 and, in the previous year, despite all the data looking rosey throughout the terms, the schools SATs results had been terrible. After a few terms and a lot of digging, it was discovered that the summative assessment results of students in her current Y5 class were not reflective of the age expectations for the year group. This explained the opposing picture in the previous year's KS2 results. The teacher and leadership team thought the children were all doing great and that there was nothing to worry about; there was no need for intervention or raising the bar. However, this led to a false sense of security and a surprise when the national results were released.
The student in the first story couldn't lift the shot. The pupils in the second story couldn't reach the expected standard. Why? Because the standards they had been held to were too low; there wasn't enough challenge.
When I was an NQT in Hampshire, I heard Ian Troup talk about top-down planning and it felt like a revelation to me. During my teacher training, I had always been taught and shown how to plan by starting with the main bulk - the middle, if you like - and planning what activity they will do, before differentiating the work up and down for the higher and lower ability pupils. Instead, Ian argued that for all pupils to be appropriately challenged, we need to start by considering what the most able pupils need to learn next and then scaffold the work accordingly for the rest of the class. This is exactly how I have always planned and taught ever since.
This diagram shows how, when you set the bar of expectation high, every pupil can be challenged. Our
challenge then, as teachers, is to ensure that pupils can access the learning appropriately. This requires scaffolding.
Learning is scaffolded when supports (of various different forms) are in place to allow pupils to access the same learning. Pupils can have heavy scaffolding - in the form of a guided answer with missing information, perhaps an adult to help - or lighter scaffolding, which could include a word mat or having been pre-taught something.
Planning like this requires a different process to the type of differentiation I learned at university which was very much 3-way, top/middle/bottom and delivered in ability groups. Top-down planning is more personalised while sticking with one main activity which the whole class can access. It sounds like extra work but it actually isn't. Rather than preparing 3 (or more) different activities, teachers just plan for one. Their time can then be better spent considering individuals and groups in the class and what they may need in place to achieve the learning objective through the same activity. Sometimes this can be through a tweak, some pre-teaching, resources, adult support etc.
I'd encourage you to try and teach to the top. Keep the expectations high so that your pupils aren't missing their potential. Make sure they are best prepared to lift the shot and reach the expectations, unlike the poor boy in the regional athletics competition!
Coming soon - Scaffolding: How does it work?