Now you have returned, or are about to return, from your Easter break, and are looking ahead to the final stages of your placement, I thought it would be helpful to focus on a specific aspect of teaching and consider ways of developing your practice in a certain area.

I have been doing some analysis of your Interim Profiles and there were a couple of the Teachers’ Standards that stood out as ones that a large proportion of you were not achieving as high a grades in as other standards. This week I am going to consider Standard 5 ‘Adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils’ and think particularly about knowing ‘when and how to differentiate appropriately, using approaches which enable pupils to be taught effectively’.

It is, of course, no surprise that this was a standard you were not achieving as highly in at the Interim stage – whilst you are still grappling with the basics of planning and teaching, the idea of adapting your practice for a range of different needs is incredibly difficult. This is also a particular complex aspect of a teacher’s practice, and one which many experienced teachers still find hard. Now you are more confident though, here are some thoughts and challenges you might consider over the next few weeks:

Return to observation:

It is likely to have been a while now since you observed an experienced class teacher, but this is an excellent time to observe someone who is really good at an aspect of teaching you are trying to develop further. With your mentor, identify a colleague who is particularly good at adapting their practice to support all pupils in their class.

Talk to the teacher about what they think about at the planning stage – how do they adapt their lessons without creating an unmanageable workload for themselves?

When you observe the teacher, you want to look specifically at what different pupils experience during the lessons and what is the same and different about the activities they do and their learning over the duration of the lesson. What would be a good way of making notes about what you want to see? Decide on a suitable format in advance of the lesson – for example, could you make notes on an enlarged seating plan so you can write about different pupils easily?

If it is appropriate, you could ask the teacher to mention things to you within the lesson – for example, something they particularly want you to notice in relation to what they have done or how a pupil has responded.

After the lesson, talk to your mentor about what you learnt from your experience. What strategies could you apply to any of your lessons moving forward?

Learning from theory:

Consider how the theories about teaching and learning which we have considered over the duration of the course might help you.

For example, how could thinking about the concept of scaffolding support your thinking?

To me, whilst scaffolding is a theory which offers an explanation of what is happening when a teacher and learner are interacting, the concept can also be really helpful when thinking in advance about how to adapt my teaching for different needs. At the planning stage, I can think carefully about the layers of support I could offer in a lesson that would enable all pupils to access a learning activity and, instead of creating lots of different levels of work (three different worksheets as a means of differentiation is never going to be sustainable if you are teaching a full timetable) I can make sure I have ready resources and questions that could help different pupils.

Here’s a maths example of what I mean (sorry for the non-mathematicians – I will try and keep it simple!):

I once observed a lesson on linear equations (questions like ‘solve 3x +17 = 35’). The teacher had done a good job of explaining the mathematical ideas and the class had worked on some examples together successfully. As soon as the pupils started working independently, however, there were several pupils who kept getting incorrect answers. On the surface, this could suggest that the teacher should have created different worksheets with simpler questions on, or possibly even decided some pupils weren’t ready for linear equations and done something much easier with them.

I would argue, however, that there are other ways the teacher could have adapted their teaching that would not result in either lots more work for them or pupils doing substantially different work. Looking closely, the reason why some pupils were getting the wrong answers was because they were struggling with their times tables – so, in the example above, they could establish that 3x = 18 but then made a mistake with their tables facts and perhaps answered 7 or 8. Thinking about this at the planning stage and considering in advance the possible layers of support I might offer within the lesson (scaffolding?), in this situation, I might have had available times tables grids so that the pupils could successfully do the questions and develop their understanding of linear equations along with the rest of the class.

For me there are two key things that success in adapting my teaching relies on: knowing my pupils and knowing my subject.

Obviously I have simplified this example, and there is much more we could discuss if we were really exploring the notion of scaffolding, but can you think of an example in your subject where thinking about scaffolding would enable you to easily, and effectively, adapt your teaching for different pupils?

Knowing my subject

Over the duration of the course, you will have been introduced to a range of different ideas about what constitutes ‘teacher knowledge’ within your subject. To explore this in depth would take too much space here, but I have found the notion of ‘decompressing’ my own knowledge one that is particularly useful (Ball et al, 2008 ) – put simply, I have a very thorough understanding of a mathematical concept and I have to ‘unpack’ this to make the different elements and features of this knowledge apparent to pupils. I think this is helpful when thinking about how to adapt my teaching. If I have done a good job of the ‘decompression’ then I should be able to decide relatively easily:

  • what I might need to emphasise more with some pupils than others;
  • when to take more time over a step in learning or a feature of a concept;
  • where I might need to provide a support prop (like a times table grid), etc.

Ball et al’s work focused specifically on mathematical knowledge for teaching but you will have been introduced to similar ideas in your own subject. Have a think about how these might help you adapt your teaching for different pupils.

Knowing my pupils

Alongside knowing your subject, you must know your pupils and their different needs.

Try the following task:

Choose a class you are teaching. On a piece of paper, without thinking, write down the first nine names of pupils in the class that come into your head.

Set the names out in a three by three grid:








Now choose any group of three pupils (a row, a column or a diagonal). With your group of three, identify things about the pupils that are similar or different in relation to their learning and their needs: consider things such as what they are good at, what they find hard, what the barriers to success are for them, what their attitudes to learning your subject are, how they interact with others, etc.

Now think about how you might use this information, for example:

  • If you identify a pupil you know little about make it a priority to find out more about them in the upcoming lessons
  • If there is a pupil who is particularly good at interacting with others (in the context of learning, and talking about, your subject) could they work with a pupil you have identified who struggles with communication (for example, an EAL pupil)?
  • If there is a pupil who has a positive attitude to your subject, how could you use this to promote the same attitude with others? Who particularly do you want to target?

So, as you move into these final experiences of teaching think carefully about how well you know your subject and how well you know your pupils!