Mr Patel does it again.

roofing safety

I arrived home Friday night tired out from one of those weeks: high stress, high expectation, PRESSURE!  Teachers everywhere will know what I mean when I say  ‘graded observations.’  We all hate them (people who say they enjoy them are just lying quite frankly, or a bit sadistic) but it has to be done and when it’s over, it’s never that bad…hopefully anyway.

The reason these reviews are stressful is because they are up close and personal and deeply intimate in a way that few other professionals experience in quite the same way, although I accept there are other forms of appraisal that might be equally, if not more taxing (teachers don’t have the monopoly on stress or hard work, I know).  However,  every movement you make, every word you utter is closely monitored by clip boarded individuals,  and there are thirty variables sitting there wide eyed before you: anything could happen!

No matter how long you’ve taught, you just can’t help feeling some anxiety at the unpredictability of it all. Yet what will always save your bacon is everything you as a teacher have done up until that time, all the systems you’ve put in place, all the habits you’ve engendered in yourself and the children, in essence your pedagogy. Those good or outstanding observations are not luck. As a teachers we need to understand what good teaching means, we need to understand how children learn and learn well. Sometimes this is intuitive; sometimes we’ve had to go away and think about it, to have studied it and talked about it, but things needs to have been in place long before that observation day.

So I sat down after my latest turn at being watched, content in the knowledge that once again my class had successfully investigated a problem for our fictitious  friend Mr Patel. Mr Patel pops up a lot in our science lessons. He’d just bought a barn, a barn without a roof no less! What kind of roof tiles should he use he wondered? Having previously explained and demonstrated to the children what permeable/ impermeable meant, it was hard to hold them back with all the advice they had for Mr P. When I showed them a range of equipment, I was told by a seven year old exactly how to test each of our six rocks for permeability and thus how to advise our roofless friend on the right kind of roof tile! Moreover, I was then told exactly what our enquiry question should be in order to solve Mr P’s conundrum. I breathed a sigh of relief and heard the words, ‘there is a God,’ in my head. I was dreading this part most. One of the hardest things in science is to get children to ask a question, harder still, the right question. And harder than all this is the children arriving at a sound, as well as safe and sensible way to investigate the question. Science can so easily turn into a messy bun fight! But the children were nothing short of outstanding themselves in their keenness, as well as their thoughtfulness . Part of this is because children are naturally curious and natural problem solvers too, if given the chance!

Part of me hopes this triumph was because I’ve taught science in this ‘enquiry orientated’ way for a while  so  the children are in the habit of thinking scientifically (sadly it’s often  talked out of them by seven).  I’ll never really know, but for me it was a triumph…and for Mr Patel too. And thank God the watchers  have left…for a while anyway!

Very interesting! I see this in the playground all the time!


Carol Vincent 

Kate Hopkins, a past contestant on reality TV show The Apprentice, caused some controversy last week by stating in the press and on television that she maintains a tight control over the friendships her children make at their state primary school. Suitable friends are those from “like-minded, high achieving families”.

She told the Mail: “I have absolutely no intention of letting my two precious daughters get dragged down into the quagmire of underperforming children. So I work hard at targeting the right sort of friends for them“.  Hopkins claims that her interest is in ensuring her children’s friends are “clever, ambitious children, a euphemism seemingly, as her description of the children of whom she does not approve is infused with class judgments; pink leggings, soft play areas at local leisure centres, electronic toys, and names such as Charmaine are all indicators which spike…

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Smart Differentiation – Part Two


In my last post I hope I set out some of the arguments for mixed ability groupings; here I’d like to share some of the ways I tackle this in the classroom.

If we accept that learning is more effective within mixed ability groupings, as opposed to children being grouped by ability (which is itself a misnoma as no two children are alike anyway) then the question is, how are all children allowed to learn and progress? This is where much thought and organisation come into play. Mixed ability grouping is one thing, but it should never be thought of as an excuse for less planning and less differentiation in learning opportunities  Here are a few fundamentals regarding ‘smart differentiation’, that cater for all, but allow differing abilities to rub shoulders:

  • THIS IS A PREREQUISITE! Make sure the class is a supportive learning orientated environment so that children are discouraged from showing off or mocking others who they might be ahead of. Make sure you cultivate an ethos of support for each other’s learning, where mistakes are seen as part of the learning process and that learning is seen as a ladder that every one is on and that everyone can move along. Make sure the high ability experience errors and stretch as much as everyone else!

Some activity options:

  • Three to four choices of activities made available to all and working towards the learning outcome and in degrees of challenge (I like to call these activities must, should, could and even would). These can be question cards, baskets/envelopes of different activities the children choose from or activity options on the board.
  • An open ended investigation can be used for all, as long as the investigation is accessible to the lower ability children and open ended enough to stretch the higher ability. Maths, science and the humanities might lend themselves more to this approach. Support tools/resources can be put on each table for children to use if they need, this is a form of differentiation too.
  • The higher ability option can sometimes be to write questions for others (as long as they can work out the answers!) This can only be done when the concept is really understood and can be applied!
  • Try to avoid the progression in difficulty just being more of the same, but go for ‘more of the same but different’ instead! By this I mean giving the  opportunity for the higher ability to use the concepts learnt in a different way. They should be demonstrating how the concept is used in a different context so that they are applying and synthesising what they’ve learnt. Another option is to give them examples they need to evaluate themselves, as in checking for errors or trying  to improve pieces. This is then one step further and progressing them towards evaluating the learnt concept.
  • Supporting ideas:
    • A ‘Carpet Clinic’ can be used before and during the activity. This is where anyone wanting further demonstration or support can stay on the carpet before going off to start the tasks, or during the lesson you can ask anyone wanting support  to come to the Carpet Clinic to clear up any misconceptions and set them straight again. This is also ‘real time’ assessment for learning isn’t it! You don’t want to get to the end of the lesson to find out who didn’t get it (that’s old school!)
    • Plan who you will support at the start of the lesson. Take the concept to a table and get the higher ability to explain how to do the simpler activities before everyone gets going. Then support individual(s) where necessary. The trick is not to stick to one pupil or set of pupils like glue every lesson. This applies to my teaching assistant too. This allows the children to learn to be independent too. It’s actually a disservice to a child to support them all the time.
    • Pause the class and do an AFL check. Then ask the children who think they are confident enough to explain things to someone else. Then pair the children up with the children who need help on the carpet for their own Carpet Clinic for a short while before going back to the tasks. (The children should be trained to use their mini white boards to give others demonstrations and to offer answers as they are questioned etc.
    • Use a carefully thought out ‘success criteria’  or ‘what makes good’ for the lesson so that the children know what success at each point should be like or what it takes. This is important because then they know when to progress on to the next activity.
    • Use peer assessment to ensure the children are pitching themselves at the right activity. Going through the success criteria in the lesson with a peer will help the children assess their own learning and see where they are.

    So these are just some of the ways I tackle differentiation with mixed ability groupings. I’m sure there are better ways out there, please let me know of them if you have them! However, I always try to stick to this idea when I plan and teach:

    “Everyone on the bus, everyone knowing where they’re going and everyone moving!”

     Stick to this and we can’t do wrong!

Smart Differentiation – Part One

Recently I blogged about teachers (and parents) breaking the habit of grouping children by ability. I tried to explain that with mixed ability grouping, and teaching using what I termed ‘smart differentiation,’ everyone’s a winner. While it might take parents time to appreciate that this benefits the highest ability children just as much as the lower, teachers today must adopt this kind of approach if they want to avoid embedding the achievement gap between children and fixing children’s ability status permanently in their own and other people’s minds.

Sadly, there are  parents who would seek to perpetuate the achievement gap between children when it appears to advantage their own child.  After all, their child is seemingly high ability because someone else is low. This is also a factor in the high stakes arena of selective testing when classmates are literally pitched against each other for a place at a high performing, selective secondary school. In this instance, it is understandably hard for parents not to want their child to be right at the top of the ladder because for some this is the only means to ensure a quality secondary school place. This is at present a structural reality within education that only political clout can overcome through policy. In essence,  so long as we have such great variation in school quality, and selective schools are allowed to cream off the top 25% of pupils in an area, then grouping by ability will continue to matter to some parents to the degree it does, regardless of whether it serves any of the pupil’s best interests in terms of learning.

Mixed ability grouping alongside the use of ‘smart differentiation’, allows all children to learn more, and more effectively. Although it might seem counter intuitive to these ability fixated parents, who can argue with the wealth of research that supports this. I would say, what about if everyone learns more, including your child? What about if the bar is raised for everyone and more children have a chance of getting ahead?

As I explained in my previous blog, ‘Ability Setting – breaking the habit’, offering different levels of activities but within mixed ability groups has a positive effect on all learners and in many different ways. While the most obvious benefit might seem merely social (now they can sit next to their friends – isn’t that what any of us would do if we could?) there are rewards from this approach in many ways, not least psychological. Those children previously assigned to ‘that table’ no longer feel stigmatised and possess a better sense of self esteem. If you’re aware of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, then you will know that self confidence and positive self esteem are prerequisites for effective learning. Interestingly, it works the other way too, as high ability children can suffer from confidence issues when grouped only alongside their high flying peers, in fact sometimes stiflingly so.  We must accept that learning is social and emotional and effective learning happens when a child is settled in each.

Yet mixed ability grouping simply for the sake of feeling nice and cosy with ones mates would be doing the concept a great disservice. Learning is enhanced when children are interacting and communicating with each other. Frightening as it might be to some parents, children learn much from chatting to their peers. Of course, a teacher must ensure it is the right chat, and not the latest debate on Moshi Monsters. They must ensure they are talking about their learning along with their errors and corrections. Children also learn by watching others do things and even more so by explaining their ideas to others. Explanation itself is at the heart of effective learning. Contrary to one parents’ view, that her bright child was ‘just a helper for the slow children’ (he went to a top grammar school so it worked then) high ability children cement their new learning by explaining to it to others.

Put simply, all children benefit from learning alongside a range of differing abilities for all the reasons that make learning what it is. Learning is constructing meaning and the best way to construct meaning is made through discussion and explanation which is a natural outcome of mixed ability grouping.

An excellent document on  called ActiveLearningWorks elucidates this well.

In Smart Differentiation – Part Two I’d like to share some of the things I do in the classroom to make sure the benefits of mixed ability grouping are maximised in the classroom.

Evidence based teaching – get it out there!


Looking through the bottom ten factors that effect learning, I feel frustration that these aren’t common knowledge and right out there in the public domain. If I had a quid for every time a parent asked me about ability grouping, I’d be able to leave the teaching profession and sit on a beach sipping pina coladas all day. Thanks to the powers that be keeping the ability myth going, parents  aren’t happy unless their children are rubbing shoulders with the ‘clever’ kids and the so called ‘slow’ learners are well away, on their own table (after all it might be contagious!).

The only factor I would contest is that of the teaching assistant. Yes, if used as an admin assistant (pencil sharpener and filing cabinet monitor) then they are certainly high cost, low impact on learning. However, my TA is high impact because she actively supports assessment for learning (AFL) in the classroom. She does this by pre-teaching to small groups who will need it and carrying out over learning sessions post teaching. We work as a team and pick up any stragglers in real time…everyone is on the bus! I say, teachers must make sure their TA’s have an impact and use them as an AFL partner in the class as they teach! The effect size of my TA would surprise Mr Hattie.

Method  Effect size  Description
Ability grouping   near zero Pupils with similar attainment levels are grouped together either for specific lessons on a regular basis (setting or regrouping) or as a class (streaming or tracking).
Teaching assistants  near zero A teaching assistant or classroom assistant (sometimes called an educational assistant or paraprofessional) is someone who supports a teacher in the classroom.  If the TA simply helps the pupil with the task, the effect is slightly negative.  However, TAs who promote independent learning skills, or who are trained to deliver remedial lessons (eg vocabulary or arithmetic) have a very positive effect.
 Reducing class size very low Overall the benefits are not particularly large or clear, until class size is reduced to under 20 or even below 15. There is little advantage in reducing classes from, say, 30 to 25
 Learning Styles very low Based on the notion that, as individuals, we all have different approaches, or styles of learning and that learning will be more effective or more efficient if we are taught accordingly.
Retention  negative Pupils who fail to achieve a set grade are kept down and repeat the year.
Teacher subject knowledge  low There is little evidence that teachers who are expert in their subject are more effective as teachers.
 Charter schools or Academies low A publicly funded school, but free from some of the regulations of other state schools.
 Finances low Extra money has a small effect (and may account for any advantages gained by changing the school status)
Computer based learning low Students follow instructions from the computer programme, rather than from the teacher

Go to  for more information.

Making Meaning – Constructing Learning.

home games

If learning is about taking in the facts that someone else knows, then the only reason a pupil would  ever be wrong would be because he or she was taught incorrect facts. In essence, if learning really is simply a child  remembering what they’ve been taught then they would never get things wrong, would they? All teachers would need to do would be to teach ‘blar, blar, blar’ and then the child would know ‘blar, blar, blar,’ unless they forgot ‘blar, blar, blar of course.

The thing is, if learning is just remembering what you’re told, read or see then a child could not be taught ‘blar, blar, blar,’ and then come out with ‘yadder, yadder, yadder’, which unfortunately for us happens all the time. These mental errors occur because learners themselves make meaning from what we put before them and sometimes they arrive at the wrong meaning. Something happens between the teaching and the learning and we have to pay carefully attention to this space so that real meaning is made and misconceptions avoided.

Children make their own mental constructs out of what we teach, they do not just remember what we know and tell them. Because of this it is imperative that teachers facilitate,  in a very thoughtful way, children making their own meaning. This is why all our sweat over creating platforms for active, engaging learning is so important, along with all that scaffolding and questioning to stoke the meaning making and literally create those new neural connections in our children. It’s just not good enough to teach and hope osmosis will occur. We have to probe, check, question and be active ourselves too. We may wag our fingers at passive learners folks, but passive teaching (and/or parenting)  is likely to have come first.

For more detail on this go to Teacherstoolbox – an excellent site.

Ability setting – breaking the habit.

There are advantages to being at the bottom of the pile

‘Why is my child not on the top table?’ This is a question I am occasionally asked and for which I have to do everything in my power not to roll my eyes, heave a deep sigh and bang my forehead repeatedly on the nearest table.

The reason I find this question so frustrating is because it is almost always born from a misguided one-up-manship that not only serves to embed attainment differences, but also to reinforce social divisions, and even those of ethnic and gender origin too, as most parents who ask me this are those of white middle class girls. I’ve even been asked to list the other children on this supposed ‘magic table’. Unsurprisingly, I meet with many a furrowed brow when I explain that there is no top table in my class.

Grouping by ability should be a teaching tool adopted in the right circumstances. It should not, as it so often becomes, a method of rubber stamping children because all too often the stamp lasts throughout a child’s education…and beyond.

Contrary to Gove and Wilshaw’s old boy’s world view, setting and streaming in primary schools (and I suspect secondary schools too) is not supported by any empirical evidence whereas teaching mixed ability groups, but differentiating appropriately within them, has proven to be far more effective, both empirically and anecdotally. Not only does mixed ability teaching like this raise the lower achievers up, but it drives the high achievers forward as they secure new concepts faster by frequently having to create explanations for others. Moreover, I have proven all this to myself in my own class for several years.

The key to this is ‘smart differentiation.’ This is achieved by offering differentiated activities to the children to select themselves, but allowing the children to sit in mixed ability groups. The way I do this is by taking the core teaching concept and creating three different activities. I call these the ‘must’, ‘should’ and ‘could’, sometimes I even throw in a ‘would’ too. Then these activities are either in baskets at the front of the class or presented as clear choices in the white board.

At first you always get the children who either underestimate or overestimate themselves (feel lazy or want to show off) but this quickly rights itself as the children don’t like being bored doing things that are too easy or struggling with things that are too hard. Children thrive on learning and progressing through activities, which they can here.

This approach is then set against the instances when ability grouping is preferable, when a skill needs to be learnt at a specific level. This is where ability grouping is helpful, but this leads into the whole skills and knowledge question, which is a whole other blog.

I will finish then by returning to that original insipid question and end by answering it with another I like to ping back: do you mean how is your child progressing?

Reasons to be Cheerful -Part 3


In recognising that special space where learning takes place, Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, I have tried to maximize how I use this space in supporting my children’s writing progress. Not only have I pitched high (but not too high of course, not outside their grasp), but I have also ‘zoned’ in on each child’s individual ZPD. This is achieved through regular, rigorous written feedback (alliteration intended).

Each piece of written feedback consists of a comment refering to what they have achieved and what they need to do next. It is the latter comment which pulls them along that ZPD towards tangible progress in their learning. The comment I give is carefully chosen to stretch them individually in their writing,designed not to return to old ground, or revisit old learning, but to push them on and support new learning.

All of this is facilitated by a specific time made for ‘editing and improving’, which my children are trained to do in a different colour so I can easily see their improvement; I can see where they have travelled in Vygotsky’s precious zone.

For marking to be effective like this, it’s essential to make it personal and make time for the children to use it! In Vygotsky’s Zone, all those magic teaching tools come to life: modelling, scaffolding, personalised feedback, higher order questioning and more.. In truth however, if none of those are implemented within that magic zone, so they challenge children to think, none of them will work.

Reason to be Cheerful – Part 2

While marking the latest installments of our adventure stories this morning, I find Vygotsky comes to mind. Unusually, this is not due to my flighty mind wandering off, but because Vygotsky leaps out at me from every page. Let me explain.

Lev Vygotsky was a psychologist in the 19th century who spent much of his career devoted to understanding cognitive development. His main preoccupation was the social and cultural aspects of learning. For him, learning was as much about what went on in the space around a child as it was about what went on in their little heads. One concept he developed was the idea of a cognitive domain around the child, the field of potential if you like, where learning takes place. He called this the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

Hopefully, it is within this zone that we teachers operate everyday. Intuitively, teachers know pretty quickly if they’re operated outside the zone. It might begin with blank faces staring back at you, twitching and fiddling beginning, the rising bustle of disengagement or worse (poor behaviour is often because the child is mentally disengaged). In essence, there is a specific space where a teacher can be effective,  and a larger, empty space beyond that where they will not.  This is because the ZPD refers to the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with direction and support from their teacher. Put simply, it is where learning takes place. Outside this area, there’s simply being present in the classroom giving out information and instruction, which is not the same as the children learning.

So, I used this space to model to the children examples of adventure writing that were just beyond what they would manage on their own. I did this through reading lots of quality adventure stories and writing short demonstration pieces myself – always that much better than they would do, but importantly, not outside what they could potentially achieve, or outside the ZPD. And this is where a teacher’s understanding about learning,  and specifcally about their chidlren’s learning, is vital. (This is where Gove’s plan to drag so called ‘experts’ off the street to teach will fall down, as in my last rant about the man.)

Thanks to Vygotsky, I know what good modelling and demonstration must be like and where these teaching tools can take the children, but importantly why these tools facilitate learning in the way that they do. When I read through my children’s stories, I see how they have been stretched within the zone; they have taken what I showed them and achieved more than they thought they could, more than they would without me tapping into their potential. So, hats off to Vygotsky I say. The theory behind the practice holds true, and even more so because I understand how this is so.