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What about differentiation and setting?

The newly published TALIS survey from the OECD, who brought you PISA, produced all kinds of interesting results based on questions put to teachers and heads across the world.

As far as England is concerned I was particularly struck by two points: firstly, how little we use textbooks compared with other nations surveyed and secondly (not disconnected) how much English teachers claim to use differentiated work with their pupils.

The report shows that teachers in the "highest performing" nations/jurisdictions - I insist on putting that in quotation marks, as the term refers only to the evidence of OECD PISA tests which only look at maths, science and reading at age 15 - do not use differentiation as much as us.

Now, it is true that differentiation has been a buzzword for quite a few years and shows no immediate signs of going away. Whenever the word was mentioned in my school I had slight feelings of guilt, because all we really did in our MFL department in terms of differentiation, was to set pupils from Y9 (age 13), use skilled AfL techniques in the classroom and what is termed "differentation by outcome". We did not do differentiated worksheets or differentiated task within lessons. We had a "policy" on differentiation on our handbook, but it was there mainly because it had to be. I believe other departments had a similar view and probably paid lip service to any initiatives on differentiation. I should also point out that students at my school came roughly from the top half of the ability range; this certainly colours one's view on differentiation.

Skilled classroom technique is crucial of course and, in my view, effective differentiation involves, for example, the rejection, on the whole, of random questioning. No lolly sticks for us, just some limited sessions of no hands up to keep them on their toes. Differentiation by outcome should also not be underestimated; we would set a lot of open-ended composition work and provide opportunities for extended oral work from a young age, sometimes with minimum word limits. This allowed the most able to stretch themselves.

But it is setting that I want to look at mainly in this longer than usual post.

For us, and for many schools, setting is the main tool used to differentiate by aptitude. It is very common in British schools for languages and for maths (I shall not go into why these subjects are usually chosen). In French schools, incidentally, it is frowned upon, largely for social/political reasons to do with equal opportunity, although colleagues of my acquaintance would have been keen to use it in their school.

It is generally felt, and research bears this out, I believe, that setting benefits the most able and may have a slightly negative effect on less able pupils. Ofsted report that mixed ability grouping often holds back the most able. For what it is worth our top sets always easily exceeded their Yellis/FFT prediction, whilst our lower sets performed slightly below them. This may confirm the general view of setting, or may be due to other factors, such as work ethic and general motivation.

We were aware that, although setting seemed important for our best students, it did have a demotivating effect on the less able. Whilst some students were much happier once they went into a lower set, feeling that the pace of the work suited them better, others certainly felt that they were being labelled also-rans. This negative perception needed countering with reassuring pep talks, explaining that we had the highest expectations for them (we did) and that it was better to working at the right pace.

To avoid this "sink set" mentality we altered our setting system over time. We originally began setting in Y8 and had four sets going from "Alpha" to "Delta". We soon decided to delay setting as long as possible and began setting in Y9. This was workable in a selective school, but would not work elsewhere, I think.

Subsequently, when we had some behaviour issues with one or two bottom sets we decided to do away with them and run two parallel lower sets. Thus we had a top set, a second set and two parallel lower sets. This countered the sink set mentality to a degree, though the feeling probably remained for some students that they were still in the bottom set. Each year I was also careful to make sure that the right teachers were working with the top sets and lower groups. If certain colleagues did great work with lower sets, I would lean towards using them in that way, making sure that they had a good balance of teaching overall across the age range.

We could have simply had a top set and three parallel second sets. This may have been more motivational, but would have meant that the work would have been too fast for some or held back others.

On reflection I am still of the view that setting is the best solution in languages. Each school has its own issues, so the system should be adaptable, aiming to find that balance of meeting every pupil's needs without demotivating them or creating a "fixed mindset", as it is fashionably termed.

In general terms, I am pleased that teachers in England try to differentiate more that average. I am also happy that they do not stick too closely to imperfect textbooks. To my mind this shows that they are creative people, trying to meet the needs of individual pupils. High expectations are vital, but this does not mean force-feeding the same diet to every student, whatever their aptitudes.


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