I was wrong about ‘teaching to the top’


I was wrong about ‘teaching to the top’

5 Feb ’19 Curriculum Teaching 2

It would seem that I have been wrong about a few things lately.

Encouraging decent is so important within schools, as it is with any organisation. If staff do not feel psychologically safe, few will speak up, even fewer will speak out. Encouraged descent, is yet another organisational management theme connected to trust.

Leaders don’t take ‘yes’ for an answer.

Speaking out

I have John Irvine to thank for challenging my thinking on the phrase ‘teach to the top.’ Organisationally, the intention was to communicate and convey high expectations for of students, from both teacher and from students themselves. The intention, that setting a high bar for all, avoiding the sticky and middle ground of mediocrity. “Life… is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it.

The result. The phrase or proposal was swiftly swallowed up by the greedy differentiation monster. A term that comes with so much implied meaning and assumptions that I am not sure ‘we’ actually know what it means or when it is actually meant to be applied or proscribed (pre or post school selection, curriculum organisation, class selection, grouping within a class). Let’s not forget the added bonus of differentiation by outcome. The strategy swallowed up by culture – Drucker will be gloating.

Conversations with teachers by-passing the first three differentiation actions and understandable focusing on the ‘grouping within a class’ and almost always reverted to the framing their response by referencing the learning objectives or tasks. The all to familiar and comfortable constructs all/most/some, extension tasks or occasionally calling for greater SEND support for low attaining learners.

John simply stated,

If you want to have high expectations of everyone in the class, why don’t you just say that. ‘Teaching to the top’ feels like, as a teacher, I am ignoring where my students are right now?

John was part of a four person Professional Learning Community (PLC). So I asked the group to look at this concern more closely and to set about defining what ‘they’ thought a classroom with high expectations looked and felt like. As Headteacher, I informally discussed this topic with other Headteachers, senior colleagues, staff and our students as well). I talked more generally, about creating a culture of excellence (perhaps ambition or climate would have been more appropriate).

In summary, the PLC defined or set the barometer for classroom relationships and learning, as well as remedial actions or responses for staff to employ. As Head, I communicated through various channels (newsletters, assemblies, class displays, stakeholder survey questions, conversations, staff briefing, school displays, and training) and modes (class visitor, excellence supporter, standards enforcers) that contributed to an up-shift in staff and student expectations and transference of greater responsibility to the students for their learning. It did not reference differentiation. We did collectly move away from ‘differentiated’ learning outcomes or objectives.

Differentiation lingers

Ignoring a problem does not make it go away. Differentiation continues to plague my pedagogical thinking. Differentiation continues to be referenced in my pedagogical preactive practice (the period before teaching), but only after I have considered the complexities of the class (who, prior attainment, knowledge, interactions-relationships, prior interactions with the group, students, even what is the lesson before me…). What I am to teach, sequence and series. Available resources (time, learning support, equipment, the learners as resources, access to content, online/offline, for example). The environment, space, tables, windows, configuration, display – you try teaching a mixed ability, low attainment, Y8 English class in a Music room and then try telling me that environment is not important. Possibly even my deliberate teaching actions – what I intend to model, demonstrate, explain, question, what and when check learning. What I intend to omit (at this time). Where do I anticipate a fracture or barrier to impede progressing the lesson (interactive), what might I do about it, and for whom. As you can see, differentiation has a low footing in my preactive thinking, modest in my interactive thinking, possibly a little more when reflecting postactively and when reviewing assessment.

I remain unconvinced of the prominence differentiation appears to have in teaching and teaching narrative (as I do the terms ‘gifted’ and ‘talented.’ As if both are present at the same time)? I appear not the only one.

I stand by my assertion that differentiation in a heterogeneous classroom setting is a difficult, at times impossible, task to complete for a single teacher.

James R. Delisle – Distinguished Professor of Education, Kent State University (Retired)

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is often promoted as an inclusive teaching methodology for supporting all students within diverse contemporary classrooms. This is achieved by proactively planning to the edges of a classroom by thinking of all the potential needs of students… The impact on educational outcomes has not been demonstrated.

When we got rid of differentiation 3 yrs ago we were genuinely amazed… glass ceiling we had been creating in ability grouping for years got smashed & so many surprised us with their achievement in every lesson. However, always a couple at either end who need something different. Headteacher Georgina Young

Not that differentiation doesn’t a part to play in our pedagogical thinking. Of course, the very practice of teaching encourages us to differentiate.

  • Preactive (the period before teaching) planning
  • Interactive (when teachers are interacting with students in the classroom) – responsive teaching.
  • Postactive (when teachers reflect on their teaching and make decisions about subsequent teaching) – adapting and planning?

My conclusion is that the explicit and often proscribed direction to differentiate is a precariously flawed if laudable.

The ability to differentiate (at the student level) may lie in adaptive learning technologies however, we’re still in the early stages of development. A recent report funded by the Gates Foundation and summarised by Association of American Colleges & Universities concluded

Adaptive learning technology, in which software tracks the progression of individual students through a class and tailors coursework to suit each student’s needs, had no significant effect on the rate of course completion and a slight positive effect on student grades.


For now.


2 Responses

  1. Cate says:

    Another interesting post Kristian. The issue I have with the whole differentiation thing, is that students can change from day to day, and from one activity to another. I have lost count of the times I have had to explain to someone from SLT why a particular student has ‘gone down’ a grade/mark/point… yes, they were great at this task/asignment/skill, but now they are doing something new and different, so their level has dropped temporarily. Each of us is on our own path that deviates and meanders through fog and sunshine.
    I also have a huge issue with the whole concept of continual progress! But that’s for another time 🙂

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