Formative Assessment (Part 2) and A Case for Differentiated Instruction

I started this post as a case for differentiated instruction, but as I wrote it, I realised it was also very much about formative assessment. So, this is part two in my series on  formative assessment where I blog my journey through Dylan Wiliams’  book, Embedded Formative Assessment and share my and my school’s change journey.

Recently, quite a few blog posts and articles have been popping up in my feeds making a case against differentiated instruction. They’re powerful and convincing posts backed up with a lot of research evidence.

So, it’s perhaps arrogant of me to dare to disagree, given that I haven’t researched it myself. What I do have instead, is 20 years of teaching, observing, evaluating and reflecting on the effectiveness of my practice, and I would argue that dismissing the validity of that is also rather arrogant. (In fact, as an aside, has anyone else noticed how teacher’s are being listened to less and less? It’s as if our professional expertise aren’t worth anything if we don’t have a PhD!)

Mug from Moorland Pottery

Mug from Moorland Pottery

The argument against differentiation seems to be that there is no evidence of impact and that most teachers don’t do it because it is, in fact an impossible ask. In some instances it leads to lower outcomes because teachers set the bar too low, and don’t allow all students the opportunity to do the more challenging work. Therefore, we should back away from the whole idea as it doesn’t work, it’s so difficult it’s unachievable and it’s stressing teachers out.

Well, in spite of what the research apparently tells us,  I’m not turning my back on the practice.

As a primary school teacher, my classes are mixed ability.  My last Year 2 class had a student who entered as a non-reader and a non-writer. He only knew a few letters of the alphabet. I also had a group of English language learners in that class including some new arrivals. And then I had about 5 students who were extraordinarily capable. They were reading and spelling at a level more typical of 12 year olds, had impressive vocabularies and were enthusiastic writers.

If I gave the whole class the standard Year 2 work, my non-reader and writer would have floundered. He would have been constantly reminded that he was not good enough. He could perhaps retain some dignity if he copied from another student’s book, to at least appear to be working at the class level, but his experience would have been one of daily failure.

Similarly, if I insisted that my cluster of very talented students were to work at a Year 2 level, they would have coasted. They had already mastered the phonics and spelling curriculum that for most of my students required explicit teaching. They would have handed in bland, formulaic writing which achieved all the basic Year 2 standards on our marking rubric. They would have learned that they did not need to learn, that success comes easily. That challenge was only experienced by students with less ability than them.

I differentiate my lessons because if I didn’t, I couldn’t possibly be as effective a teacher. I’m  not prepared to rob my students of the best education I can offer just because its hard.

It is hard.

It’s also rewarding.

Differentiation does not have to mean planning different lessons for every student. For me, differentiation is about knowing where each of my students are at (see my earlier post on formative assessment) and setting explicit goals with them to move them forward in the context of each lesson.

Here is a simple example. When teaching persuasive writing I might assign the whole class the same topic, but the goal for each student is different.

My student  just learning to read and write would dictate his line of argument and three supporting statements either to me, to an aide, or as a voice memo on the iPad. He would then hear it back, and slowly record it in writing. His goal at the start of the year was to write one complete simple sentence on the topic using a capital letter and a full-stop. As the year progressed, we increased the number of sentences he was to write, and added other features such as conjunctions. The goals were explicit and we recorded his progress on a little chart. We kept copies of his work so he could look back and compare his later performance to where he was at the beginning of the year. He did not require a separate lesson, and supporting him in this way was not difficult. All it required was a knowledge of where he was at, and then working out his next step. He had a sense of pride and achievement, and was able to participate fully in the class program, but at a level that was appropriate and would move his learning forward.

My cluster of high achievers did not miss out. We would conference together and set goals for their writing as well. They were challenged to use different sentence structures and to vary the way they opened their sentences. They had to elaborate more and were challenged to use metaphors and analogy in their writing. Again, they were working on the same task, but they had specific goals, negotiated with them,  to move them forward.

Goals weren’t only for the students at the higher and lower ends of my class. All my students were working towards their own goals which were determined through clear, specific feedback and negotiation.

I did not have to work hard to plan different learning experiences for each of my students to differentiate a lesson. What I did have to do was provide effective feedback, and co-create learning goals which would move students forward. It was effective teaching, my students not only progressed well in writing. They also became empowered learners. They understood their goals and took responsibility for tracking and working towards them. My students not were not only learning how to write, they were learning how to learn.


Podcast: Developing a culture of positive behaviour management


In this fortnight’s episode of The Teachers Education Review Podcast, I speak with Annabel Astbury about ABC Splash, which is a treasure trove of education resources. Annabel is a former History/English teacher who is now the head of digital education at the ABC.

ABC Splash is part of our national broadcaster, and provides a free public resource for teachers, students and families. There are thousands of resources for teachers to use with their classes. What I particularly love is that it houses so many of the high quality educational video resources that the ABC has created over decades. For me, it’s a treat to be able to dip into these archives and find new uses for them.

As Annabel explains in the podcast, ABC Splash has been around for just over two years, however the funding for the project has come to an end and the future for the project is now unknown. An application for further funding has been made, but whether or not the communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull grants that is another story.  We’ve already seen so many cuts to the public broadcaster. Let’s hope this growing resource for educators doesn’t become another one.

Our feature for Episode 40 is an interview with Paul Dix, from Pivotal Education in the UK.  Paul spent eleven years teaching some of the toughest kids from some of the most difficult backgrounds in the UK and now works with schools to transform their culture of behaviour management.

He talks about how transforming teacher behaviour will transform student behaviour and how to build a positive culture in the school. He recommends getting rid of whole school point systems and a focus on punishment, replacing those with very simple strategies that set high standards, build emotional capital and recognise success.

Disclosure: I am currently contracted by ABC Splash to assist them in raising awareness of their resources for Australian educators.

You can listen and subscribe to TERPodcast on iTunesAndroid Smartphones and on Stitcher Online Radio.


00:00 – Opening Credits

01:19 – Intro

05:04 – ABC Splash, Annabel Astbury

13:49 – Education in the News

30:54 – News Discussion

44:00 – Main Feature Intro

46:01 – Interview with Paul Dix

01:21:30 – Discussion, Behaviour Management

01:43:10 – Announcements

01:47:09 – Quote & Sign Off

Formative Assessment – Part 1 (Introduction)

This is part one in my series on  Formative Assessment where I blog my journey through Dylan Wiliams’  book, Embedded Formative Assessment and share my and my school’s change journey.

Back in the mid 90’s, formative assessment was a prominent part of the  practice at the school I worked for. There seemed to be a big push to develop effective and time efficient strategies that would allow us to know where our students were at, set goals and keep moving them forward in their learning.

But 20 years later at my current school, there is a twice yearly struggle as teachers attempt to get accurate assessment information to formally report on their students’ performance.

I see the tiredness and the stress in my colleagues, and the unsustainable hours that they put into this twice yearly process. At times I worry that some of them are about to break under the stress. There has to be a better way.


I’d like to see formative assessment become embedded in our school practice. Assessment shouldn’t be an event. It needs to happen continually and it needs to inform our teaching. Only by knowing where each of our students are ‘at’ are we able to plan appropriate learning experiences which will move them forward.

My own experience with using formative assessment to inform learning has taught me that it requires careful planning, careful teaching, regular feedback and efficient record keeping. It needs to become embedded  in our work flow rather than being an add-on. And,  it requires thorough curriculum knowledge so that we can harness the teachable moments that arise throughout the day.

It’s also a practice I’ve found hard to maintain. I’ve developed my own systems and techniques but they haven’t been sustainable long-term.  I always start the year well, and have good periods of time within the school year where I’m managing this process well, but there are also long periods where that hasn’t been the case.

I’d like to develop a  more sustainable practice, and I’d like to support my colleagues in developing these practices too. In the hope of achieving this, I’ve started reading Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam and thought I’d blog my progress, a little like an online reading journal.

Wiliam says in the introduction to his book that he wrote it with two purposes in mind:

1. To provide simple, practical ideas about changes that very teacher can make in the classroom to develop his or her practice of teaching.

2. To provide the evidence that these changes will result in improved outcomes for learners.

And that is exactly what I’m after: simple, practical evidence based strategies that will improve learning outcomes.

I’ll blog about Chapter One in the next post of this series.

Read Formative Assessment (Part 2) A Case for Differentiated Instruction here

Should Australian primary school teachers be subject specialists?


Yesterday, Adelaide Now published this story, reporting that the Federal Government in Australia is considering making primary school teachers subject specialists.

It’s not the first time the idea has been mooted. I noticed a number of reports throughout 2014 suggesting the same.

The reasoning appears to be that this will be a way of reversing the apparent slump that Australia is experiencing in Mathematics and Science.

There are some compelling reasons to consider the idea:

A number of high performing school systems do have specialist teachers. According to the article, both Finland and Singapore require their primary teachers to have specialisations.

Representatives from the Australian Science Teachers Association and the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers , quoted in the article, claim their research has shown  the majority of Australian primary teachers feel inadequate to address or teach science, and that they don’t have sufficient knowledge to teach maths well.

However, in spite of this, the idea does not sit comfortably with me.

 A few concerns:

Being a generalist teacher allows us great flexibility in how we deliver the curriculum. We are not restricted by the complex timetabling issues which would be created by requiring specific subjects to be taught by specialists.

I can increase or decrease the time my class spends on subjects like maths on a daily or weekly basis according to their learning needs.

My timetabling flexibility means that I am not forced to teach maths at 2:00pm on a hot Friday afternoon to a class full of tired 8 year olds. I timetable my subjects around what will support learning, not around the availability of specialist teachers.

Teaching the same class for all subjects importantly means that I can take an integrated approach to help students see the connections and relevance of subjects like maths to other areas of the curriculum. For example, when studying measurement in mathematics,  we are able to integrate it with our work in art, geography, science and sport. Students are able to make meaningful use of their mathematical skills, which creates a NEED to learn and a subsequent improvement in engagement. The work becomes relevant.

Some good points

I’m reluctant to completely dismiss the idea. My primary school happens to have a specialist science teacher who teaches science during our 2 hours release from face-to-face teaching time each week . The expert knowledge and passion she brings to this subject is inspiring, and the curriculum she  teaches is a step above what I would be able to offer. You can see her work here.

Our science teacher also works as a mentor. We have more classes than she can cover, so we have generalist teachers employed to teach science to the additional classes. She works closely with those teachers, assisting them to develop and deliver their curriculum.

Her work has inspired countless young students to take an interest in science that I hope will carry through to high school and beyond. I can honestly say that since she joined our team, science at my school has become something we are truly proud of.

But much as I value our science program, I would not like to see specialisation to the extent that our curriculum becomes fragmented, where subjects are only able to be  taught in isolation by separate teachers, instead of in a manner that allows a more holistic, integrated approach.

A better answer

I believe a better answer is to be found in improving our preservice teacher education, and in our ongoing professional learning.

Science and mathematics are not optional add ons. They are part of the core curriculum. It’s unacceptable for primary school teachers to be incapable of teaching either area. IT’S OUR JOB!

I’m not without sympathy for those teachers. If so many are feeling incompetent then I’d have to ask if they are being adequately prepared to teach those subjects in their preservice teacher education? Why are so many teachers apparently entering our system without competency in the very subjects they are being trained to teach?

And if they don’t LIKE teaching those subjects, then I’d have to ask why they became primary school teachers. I repeat: ITS OUR JOB.

To assume that a generalist teacher doesn’t have the ability to teach all those subjects well, simply because they teach across subjects, seems a very impoverished view of our capacity as human beings: to learn and excel in multiple domains.

I am proudly an English teacher, a maths teacher, a science teacher, an art teacher, a music teacher, a history teacher, a geography teacher and health and physical education teacher. My pre-service training at Kuringai College and later University of Technology, Sydney provided an excellent grounding in all of those subject areas. I’ve continued to learn and develop my competencies in those areas and after 20 years am neither lacking in confidence or competence.

To suggest that a specialist is required to do parts of my job because I lack the expertise is insulting.

Podcast: Student Loans: Why We Need to Teach Financial Literacy in Schools

In 2014, Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne started planning reforms to Australia’s funding of university education, including the deregulation of university fees and the end of interest free loans for students.

Like Minister Pyne, I benefited from a free university education, fully funded by the tax system, so  I find his idea troubling.

I preferred things the way they were in the 1980s, where tertiary education was still regarded as a common good. Sure, individuals would benefit from the careers it would open up to them, but society would also benefit from having a well-educated population. It was a great equalizer. No fees, allowed people who could not otherwise afford it, to access higher education. Requiring people to either pay up front fees or incur a debt to be paid off later through the taxation system could turn away people who were already struggling financially.

I did incur a HECS debt during my final year of a Bachelor of Education. For me, that one year worth of debt was a lot of money. Back then, a graduate teacher earned $28,000 before tax, but most of us didn’t earn that because it was hard to find work. I was worked as a casual relief teacher, and in my second year managed to pick up 2 days a week of regular work. The other 3 days, I depended on people calling in sick in order to work.

Schools were difficult to access by public transport, so I needed a car loan. I also had to furnish and rent an apartment that I shared with another graduate teacher. We lived for weeks on instant noodles and tinned tuna.

Fortunately, our HECS debt did not accrue interest at a commercial rate. Fortunately, we weren’t required to make repayments unless our income passed a certain threshold.

Paying off my HECS debt was not something that kept me awake at night worrying. My one year worth of debt was manageable once I started earning money, and with the help of a tax accountant, I paid it off after just a few years.

But HECS back then was a cost a lot less than HECS does now.

Deregulation of university fees will make it even more difficult for people to afford tertiary education, and commerical rates of interest on student loans will cause many to live with crippling debt at a time when housing has never been less affordable, and tertiary education has never been less likely to guarantee a job or a high income.

I don’t believe this is good for our society.

The US  college system, which Minister Pyne aspires to, exists in a very different context. Unlike Australia, free tertiary education has never been a policy, so systems, like student loans have been developed to allow access for those who can not immediately afford the fees. But in the US there are many different student loans, there are also many grants and scholarships which can remove or significantly reduce the fee burden for many students.

Donelle Batty is currently studying in the United States and spoke with some students about how the student loan system impacts on their lives for our podcast, The Teachers Education Review. It’s an interesting listen and raises a number of issues  to consider in the Australian context.

In the United States, students are required to make significant decisions about incurring debt from the moment they leave high school. But how well are they prepared for that, and how well do we prepare our students for that in Australia?

Now more than ever, I see an urgency to teach financial literacy in schools.

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No Longer an Echo Chamber


Last year, I felt frustrated at what seemed to be an echo chamber in my Twitter feed. There were plenty of people agreeing with ideas, a lot of retweets, but very little disagreement.

I wrote a post titled, “Can We All Please Agree to Disagree” which seemed to resonate with many people as it was shared continuously for quite some time and became my most popular post of 2014.

That in itself was a little ironic, as I was asking for dissent but had generated more agreement, so it was refreshing to read George Couros’s reply to my post, offering a very different perspective on ‘Why We Need the Echo Chamber’.

But, you know how once you start thinking about something, or learn a new piece of information, you begin to notice it everywhere? (This is an interesting phenomenon known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenom) Well, from the day I wrote that post, I started to notice disagreements whenever I jumped on Twitter. The echo chamber was no where in sight. They weren’t negative or hostile exchanges. For the most part they were genuine explorations , with people offering new perspectives, challenging and digging deeper into ideas to increase learning from each other and expanding their understanding.

As much as I’d love to flatter myself and suggest that this sort of dialogue happened as a direct result of people reading my post, the more likely scenario is that it had always been occurring, but for some reason, I hadn’t been paying attention.

I really liked what Edna Sackson had to say in this post about the types of tweets that don’t add value to Twitter discussions. I’m not sure I agree with her on every point. For example, I quite like the updates my Twitter colleagues provide about their meals, their holidays and other things that are going on in their lives. It fleshes them out for me and has resulted in us finding some common interests outside of education which has led to the formation of some great friendships.

But she makes a really good point about adding value, and I find the tweets and blog comments that build on what others are saying, sometimes through challenge and disagreement definitely add value to the conversation.

The other day I posted some thoughts on awards for teachers, in which I expressed concerns about how they encourage a view of teaching as an individual endeavour, rather than recognising the collaborative effort that goes into educating children. I received several comments both on Twitter and on this website in response to that post, all of which added value. And I was particularly pleased to see that it had inspired Eddie Woo to write his own post in reply. Eddie offers another perspective, which I don’t disagree with, yet I still stand by the opinions I offered in the original post.

This cognitive dissonance that I’m now experiencing over the issue is spurring me on to deeper thinking and learning, just as it does in students. And that’s the great thing participating in the dialogue around education. We learn, we grow.

The Problem with Promises


I got little carried away with promises last year. My teaching load had changed from standard classroom teaching to a new role, part of which involved running enrichment programs for students across our school, an initiative funded by our parent body, the P&C.

I was excited about the enrichment programs. I was planning to run projects that had real products at the end of them.  One of these was a fortnightly or monthly news program covering events at our school. I shared this vision with the P&C and they were  impressed. The students involved were excited as well.

However, for all sorts of reasons, I wasn’t able to deliver what I’d promised.

We were beset with technical problems. It was frustrating as I’d run a similar project on a smaller scale the year before without any issues, so I’d been confident that we had the technical capacity to deliver this larger scale project.

I also found the students didn’t have the entry skills I’d expected. They initially found it very challenging to construct a report on a local event. Their early videos often looked like holiday slide shows – disconnected footage of scenes from the event, but with no explanatory narrative, and no logical sequencing of ideas. It took several edits and re-edits before some of the reports were ready to broadcast and, as we only met once a week, for some students it took an entire term to create a single report.

And there were my own personal issues that got in the way. For the first time in years, I had to take several days sick leave. I injured my shoulder at the beginning of the year, which led to days off work and limited mobility for weeks. Half way through the year, I was struck down with a severe bout of flu which had me incapacitated for more weeks. Often I wasn’t replaced on those absences, as my role was above establishment, and a number of my programs were quite difficult to pass on to a casual teacher in my absence.

I’d also underestimated the impact that only seeing a group for once session a week would have. When I ran a similar project with my class the previous year, they were able to keep working on it at odd times during the week. I also spent much more time building their understanding of the genre, de-constructing and jointly constructing video reports before asking the students to create them independently. Last year, I was feeling the time pressure of only one session per week, so tried to take short cuts which actually slowed us down.

The project wasn’t a failure. We compiled all the reports the students had filmed into a one-off Year in Review program. There were still a few refinements I would have liked to see, but over all, their product was good. Their report structures became tight and more cohesive, and many of their narrations and interviews were impressive.  They had learned a lot, developed some great skills and put together a great program that we broadcast to the school in the final week.

The problem was, I’d promised too much at the outset. Since it fell so far short of the initial plan to make a fortnightly or monthly news show, it felt like a failure. I felt it, and it  was evident that the students felt it too, because they kept referring to the fact we hadn’t achieved our goal of putting it out regularly. I tried to remain positive, and help the students see that we hadn’t failed, we were problem solving and rethinking our design to fit the constraints. We were being resilient and flexible. But deep down, I wasn’t proud, the Year in Review felt almost like an apology. We couldn’t deliver what we’d promised and it seemed like a consolation prize.

Promise Little Deliver Much

I happened to be speaking with one of our education directors last year who told me that in her work she always promises little but aims to deliver a lot. Those words were extremely pertinent.  If I’d promised that we were doing  a Year in Review program from the outset, we would have been happy with our work. Instead, because I promised too much, I felt the weight of the expectations, and our failure to meet them all year. It was hard to see our successes because we weren’t meeting  the expectations I’d created at the beginning of the year.

This year, I’ll be running projects again, but I’ll go about them differently. In my planning, I’ll be aiming high, but scaling things down to see what the minimum best possible outcome could be. To the students and their parents, I’ll promise a little, the part I know can be delivered. That way our successes will be recognised for what they are, and if we deliver even more, then we can really celebrate.