When I became a teacher I was told by my wonderful head of department to make friends with the caretaker, do the register and differentiate. The first being an essential if you wanted to find a new bookcase for your classroom at 6.30pm on a Tuesday. The second a legal entity that I am still amazed people get wrong and the third an absolutely fundamental part of teaching advice that has stayed with me for twenty years. Back in 2001 differentiation looked like a collection of worksheets that broadly split students into three distinct groups and related to levels of ability as a matter of course. They took ages to make, cost a fortune to print and rarely made any difference to the learning of students in any lesson.
In 2021 ‘differentiation’ is a word seldom used, with mastery, personalised learning and appropriate challenge as the latest incarnation of what is essentially aiming for the same thing differentiation was: inclusive practice that allows all learners to succeed.
At our trust of schools inclusive practice is at the heart of what we strive for every day. As a trust consisting of grammar, comprehensive, studio and alternative provision schools we know more than many that ‘one size’ does not fit all and our curriculums, assessments and pedagogical practices need to be tailored to reach the myriad of students we serve. Yet we were still missing the mark with some of our most vulnerable learners with not all of them achieving as well as they could. We felt we were providing the correct opportunities for them, but the outcomes were not always following. So we decided to examine just how inclusive our practice really is.
In the summer term of 2021 we began a project that became affectionately known as the Quality of Teaching for Inclusive Practice or QTIP project. We enlisted the expert help of academic and educationalist Dr Jim Rogers who is based in the south west and works for The Education Development Trust, Whole School Send and runs his own successful consultancy business. With Jim’s help we designed a collaborative CPD programme that would run through all of our schools and subjects and would upskill teachers to forensically examine inclusive practice and then undertake a form of action research that they could disseminate to colleagues. Schools were invited to take part with the only caveats that staff needed to be supported to attend any training, SENDCOs and T&L leads must be part of the group and that this should feed into their school development plan.
The aim of the project was to explore the very best practice around six pedagogical principles: instruction and explanation, modelling and practice, challenge and questioning. We wanted staff to work with colleagues from a different school in the trust to really get to grips with the techniques for curriculum design and pedagogy that work in different contexts and to give a structure to hold each other to account. We decided that having the project running over 2-3 terms would be the most effective way to ensure any good practice we found out could be tried and tested before being prepared for dissemination across a wider audience.
We had originally planned for staff to work cross school in trios with around 15 staff in total working with both Jim and myself. In the end 27 teachers and leaders wanted to be part of the project and QTIP was born. The logistics of running a large scale project across six schools became even more apparent in covid times, with all of the sessions to date being run online. This has proven useful in getting staff to work cross school but has reduced the opportunity for staff to chat and debate ideas, and to really get stuck into some of the academic material that Jim has supplied for us.
We found the best way of working was for Jim to provide live webinars when we wanted to talk about the practicalities and aims of our project and pre-recorded videos with PowerPoints when we were exploring some of the more difficult concepts and ideas. This has been invaluable so staff can pause, re watch and add questions to a shared chat.
Covid continued to make progress difficult initially as staff were in and out of school and rightly pre occupied with the challenge of teaching live and remote lessons concurrently. We supplied staff with core texts: ‘Making Every Lesson Count: Six principles to support great teaching and learning’, Allison and Tharby, 2015; ‘What works? Research and Evidence for successful teaching’ Elliott Major and Higgins, 2019 and ‘Rosenshine’s Principles in Action’ Sherrington, 2019. Jim also selected reading to aid staff in being able to focus on one of the six principles in their group and not to spend too much precious time blindly searching online. After first outlining the principles and giving staff time to digest the aims of the project, Jim presented ideas centred on (contested) learning theory, metacognition and memory – most recently highlighting ideas around metacognition by Guy Claxton in his work: ‘The Future of Teaching: And the Myths That Hold It Back’ (2021). By slowly reminding staff of some of the key educational ideas from the last few years around metacognition and learning, along with the key fundamentals of traditional and progressive teaching methodologies, we have been able to start drawing a consensus on how students learn well, how all students, of different abilities learn well, so we can truly be inclusive. When we plan we can consider the need for a robust and challenging curriculum, whilst not ignoring the need for an embodied and enactive curriculum, that was often rejected along with the word differentiation.
We are only part way through but already we have a greater understanding of the way students learn and how we can ensure we are inclusive in our thinking. By using retrieval practice with staff and allowing time for ideas to embed we have consolidated much of the educational chatter that has been the mainstay of Edutwitter and sieved out the golden nuggets of what will really make a difference. A series of face to face workshops are planned this term for groups to decide on how they are going to trial the ideas they have found in research for each of the six principles, with further workshops planned for staff to get together and decide how they want to share their findings.
Nothing we have done is revolutionary or new but we have provided a time, space and place for staff to think, research and consolidate so that they know what really helps children learn and succeed regardless of ability, background age or stage. By fully understanding the ‘best evidence’ of the ‘best practice’ our team of teacher researchers are getting to grips with being truly inclusive for all learners and how that looks in the classroom. And there isn’t a set of differentiated worksheets in sight.
Julie Waddington is Director of School Improvement for the Mercian Trust in Walsall. She is an experienced Teacher, School Leader and Improvement Adviser who has worked across several regions of the West Midlands. Julie is passionate about staff development to effect change and the power of being a lifelong learner. She is currently undertaking a Masters’ degree in Educational Leadership at the University of Birmingham.