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.


Inspiring Reluctant Writers

Last year my school decided to target students from years 1-6 who were reluctant to write and see what we could do to increase their engagement and raise their performance. These weren’t students who had learning difficulties that prevented them writing, instead they were students who were able to write but just wouldn’t, or would take so long to start that they barely have completed a sentence before it was time to move on to something new.

After spending time working with these students, observing and talking with them to try to determine the cause of their reluctance, and also having reflected on our own practice as writers, we implemented a number of  strategies across the school to successfully engage them. 

As I reflect on it now, I realise they fit into 4 key strategies

  1. Flexible Learning Spaces
  2. Authentic opportunities to write using Web 2.0 tools
  3. Explicit teaching of strategies to help students to plan their writing and overcome writers’ block
  4. Scaffolding of writing in away that allowed students to write like a writer

In this post I’ll concentrate on the importance of flexible learning spaces.

While some students thrive seated at tables close to their peers, others find it distracting or off-putting when they write. We found that the close proximity to other students prevented some students from entering their ‘writers’ zone’, that particular state of mind where the ideas just flow, because they found the presence of others distracting. A few students even became self-conscious writing in that public space where their work could be viewed by others before they’d figured it out and felt that it was ‘ready’.

Introducing some flexibility into the classroom was a simple adjustment, which seemed to work for my students. I’m fortunate to have a large classroom, with plenty of little nooks and spaces away from the main student seating area. Whenever we had time to write I simply asked my students how they preferred to work that day. If they preferred to be in their own space away from the others then they could move into one. If they were preferred to stay at a desk in the main seating area, that was fine too. The majority of students did choose to stay in the main area, but each time they were given a choice, around 5 of my students expressed a preference for working alone, including one student who had particular difficulty starting or sustaining written work.
This particular student had a diagnosis of ADHD and found it hard to concentrate on any activity for longer than about 5 minutes. Somehow, when working away from the other students, he was able to focus for longer. He was even able to complete written tasks, something that had been quite rare before. I suspect that he found the presence of others overstimulating and needed to have a space of his own at times when he had to concentrate. 
It was not just the proximity to other children that seemed to cause difficulties for some of my students. The traditional teacher practice of wandering around, looking over shoulders, providing feedback and encouragement throughout the writing session seemed to be a hinderance to some. This again, can break the flow of concentration for some students, and hinder the creativity of others. I blogged about my own feelings when people watch me write last year. I hate it.  With this in mind, I asked my students how they felt, and again, while some didn’t mind it, I had one very talented writer who admitted that she found the regular check ups off-putting, and preferred to show me her writing when she had gotten it to a point where she felt it was ready for feedback. That discussion was helpful. I still  moved around the room, supporting students when it was needed, but before I’d intrude on their work, I’d check that they were ready for me to have a look. 
These simple adjustments I made, may not seem revolutionary, but for me they were transformative. I had to change my mindset, from being the teacher who controls and monitors to a teacher who trusts and supports her students.
By allowing my students to choose where they would work, and the amount and type of support they required from me, I was putting them in control. In a gentle way it forced my students to reflect on how they learned and to take responsibility for their learning. Instead of passively following directions, they had to become more self-directed, choosing the type of environment and support that would allow them to do their very best. They rose to the challenge every time.


Starting with Student Blogs – Creating Learning Journals

Last week I wrote about the importance of  allowing time and opportunity for students to reflect upon their learning. It is this reflection that allows for deep rather than superficial learning to occur.

I reflect on my learning through blogging. The routine I’ve created of having to write an update every week forces me to stop for a moment, think and consider. The process of explaining my thoughts helps me synthesise my ideas and move forward. So it made sense for me to use blogging as a platform for my students to reflect.

On Monday I set each of them up with a blog using the NSW DEC ‘s Blog Ed. It’s not a great platform, but it was one I could start straight away with as the DEC issues an account to each student enrolled in public schools, and the permissions have already been taken care of. Their blogs are private, however they can log in at home if they wish to show their parents what they are doing. I asked each student to write about one thing they had learned this week. or about something they would like to learn.

Here are a few of their posts:

‘I  learnt that I need to take my time for writing.’ ‘

I learnt to Do some hand print art. I learnt how to retell a story.’

‘In maths groups some girls and I have been practising finding change. We did a video. It was very fun.’

The posts weren’t very detailed,  but they were fine for 7 and 8 year olds writing their first ever blogs. I loved the fact that each one was different. It gave me a good insight into what they valued in their learning this week.

Writing for many 7 and 8 year olds is still a challenging task. I realised quite quickly that this wasn’t really allowing them to reflect in the same way I can while writing – they become preoccupied with finding the keys on the keyboard, working out spelling etc. So I decided to try recording video diaries as well.

At the beginning of the week my maths students chose a learning goal related to our unit about money.  At the end of the week they had to make a video that would teach a concept to the other students.

Unfortunately I can’t show you their actual videos, but I’ve used the transcript of one and put it into Xtranormal to give you a sense of what they created.

My students loved making the videos. They also proved to themselves that they learned something new.We’ll be uploading the videos to their  blogs this week.

I’m just getting started with this so would love to hear from anyone who is using blogs with their students to reflect upon their learning. Please let me know your ideas in the comments section.

What I learned on Twitter this week – How Twitter inspired me to start students blogging

People often say that if you learn one thing at a course or conference which you can take back to your classroom, then it was worthwhile.

Since I started to build my Professional Learning Network on Twitter (PLN) I can honestly say that I have learned things almost every day that I can use back in my classroom. Through my PLN I am exposed to ideas daily that challenge the way I think about my teaching practice, that cause me to reflect, learn, change and grow.

For me, Twitter is like being at a conference every day.

Take this great article, shared on Twitter by @gcouros, that made me think this week.

The author, high school English teacher  Shelley Wright, makes an excellent case for teaching blogging as a persuasive text type. In fact, she suggests it is the new persuasive essay. She goes on to give a great explanation of blog structure which is very helpful for anyone planning to teach blogging to their students.

Her article really made me think. Should we be including blogging as one of our text types throughout the primary school? Most of us wrote our last persuasive essay at the end of high school or university, and those were generally written for exams.

The amazing power of blogging is that anyone can create a blog, and put their message out into a public forum. A well thought out, well written blog has enormous influence. It’s an exciting and empowering tool. And what is the purpose of education if not to empower and equip our students to function as effectively as they can in society?

I’ve used blogging with my class before, but I’ve created all the content, and their role has merely been to respond by commenting on it. However, I’m  now inspired now to get my students started on creating their own blog posts. I’m a little apprehensive about how to do that with a Year Two class, but I’m going to search the web to see how other K-2 teachers are making it work.

Do you use blogging with K-2 students? I would love to hear what you do.


Libby Gleeson questions if Literacy Education is Killing Storytelling

Last week I wrote of my concerns that some of our common teaching practices may actually be counter productive when it comes to teaching writing.

The link below allows you to download an excellent article by the acclaimed writer, Libby Gleeson in which in which she raises these issues and more. It was written for a conference in 2007, but it is still current and well worth reading.