A changing of the guard: from differentiation to mastery

We shall witness in schools this year a shift in jargon. Differentiation is out. Mastery is in. Mark these words.

In his recently published – and oddly titled – memoir ‘An intelligent person’s guide to Education’, retiring Headmaster Tony Little tells the delightful story of workmen at Eton uncovering a series of images under wood panelling. The painting from around 1520 is believed to be the earliest representation of a school scene in England. A banner headline from Quintilian crowns the scene: Virtuo preceptoris est ingeniorum notare discrimina – ‘the excellence of the teacher is to identify the difference in talents of pupils’. In a word, differentiation.

The whole way in which classroom learning is organised and managed rests on fundamental beliefs about the learner and the learning process. It is not just that doing things differently for different pupils relieves tedium and is more efficient as a means of instruction. It is also the fact that a key moral value is that each member of the class is an individual with her or his own rights, character, disposition to learning and level of understanding.

Differentiation is not a complex proposition, yet it is elusive to enact. Think for a moment of a new skill you have been taught as an adult, and the size of the group you learned in. All teachers know that matching the learning to students’ different needs, aptitudes and preferred styles of learning is the challenge in a classroom. A teaching career of purposeful practice – 10,000 hours and more – and still you’ve not quite cracked it.

And different cultures treat ‘differentiation’ in different ways. I recall training High School teachers in New York and being told openly that ‘we differentiate by sending students to different rooms’. Teaching in schools in eastern India I learned that deep cultural assumptions would not allow teachers to differentiate; all children must be taught the same topics in the same way at the same pace.

Will we have any more luck with mastery, the buzz word that will be in staffroom conversations this coming school year? Policy makers, publishers and TV programme makers have looked East, liked what they have seen in the classrooms of China, and decided we need a dose of this thing called ‘mastery’. International comparators rule. Mathematics Mastery is set to take off in a classroom near you, and publishers like Oxford University Press are right with you!

The painter Paul Cezanne produced over 60 paintings and drawings of Mont St Victoire in his beloved Provence. Have a look at their colours, tints, shapes and shadows. He tackled the scene endlessly; in the words of one art critic, ‘he was for ever approaching without quite reaching it’. Or take the wonderful athlete Mo Farrar. He has said flatly that he can – that he must – become better, run faster. He said it when he was unknown. He’ll say it after his best season and latest gold medal. He is pursuing mastery, in the knowledge that he’ll never reach it. It will always hover beyond his grasp.

Mastery attracts precisely because mastery eludes. A bit like differentiation really. As the school year unfolds, we shall see what teachers and pupils make of the new buzz word.

Roy Blatchford is director of the National Education Trust and co-founder of www.internationaleducationtrust.net

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Shanghai versus England

We do so love the adversarial debate in our country. We routinely position polar opposite ideas and debate them in order to determine which is right. Of course whenever we follow this process the result is bigoted people on both sides trying to thrust their views forward and positions harden rather than consensus being achieved.

The latest, highlighted in a BBC TV series, is the debate about whether Shanghai teaching is better than English teaching. Shanghai, riding high on the OECD tables, and England languishing at 20th. Shanghai reportedly all rote learning and discipline, and England characterised by harassed staff managing increasingly unmotivated children. What a stereotype this is!

I have spent a large amount of time in the last eight years working internationally and as part of that have advised the countries who are certainly performing highly in OECD terms. So I think I know something about this particular matter.

Have no doubt, Asia including China is indeed the ‘Asian Tiger’. It pulsates with optimism and evidence of rapid progress is visible at every turn. Education merely reflects this wider ambition. The Hong Kong Education Bureau staff smiled when I explained that the reason I asked about the demographic profile of the schools I visited was that in my country the family into which you are born is a strong predictor of how well you will do in education. ‘Not so in ours’, they replied. Each generation is a fresh start and all students have the chance to exceed the achievements of their parents. And they mean it! Their overall expectations are high and they deliver.

Of course they do not deliver using the same methodologies as we do. If you know anything about learning Mandarin you will know that traditionally it is acquired through memorisation, with students learning new sets of symbols each day and practising them by rote. So the rest of their education system mirrors this kind of approach. That is not to say that it lacks vision.

The Confucius education tradition has a proud history and dictates that education should encourage the student to think about how he should live his life and interact with others, and the forms of society and government in which he should participate. It’s not just learning facts but it does place the onus on the student to make the most of what they are offered. This is where the idea that the Chinese value hard work comes from. They do, but so does Singapore and Hong Kong, etc. They believe that hard work rather than background – or even innate ability – is the key to success and that anyone who wants it can achieve it.

So why are they seeking advice from English educationalists? Well the answer is that we have our own proud tradition. At its best our education system develops individuals who can think for themselves. They are encouraged to question and debate ideas and the result, when done well, is that we produce students who can innovate and problem solve as well as

having strong subject knowledge and expertise. Note our very successful creative industries and our record for innovation in all fields as opposed to just routine production.

Yet, both we and Shanghai have our problems. In Asia the challenge is to find an educational style that builds on their success but at the same time encourages the problem solving and innovative thinking that prepares people for leadership in a complex world. In our case our education tradition seems to create a mixture of excellence and mediocrity as it is much more teacher and school dependent. It’s harder to manage students who think for themselves and question and this has to be done in an environment of mutual respect.

Maybe what we should be taking from Asia is their belief in the power of hard work and their belief in students’ ability to succeed. Plus, helping students to understand that they need to take some ownership for their own progress.

One thing is for sure: grafting an educational approach from another educational tradition onto our education system is unlikely to lead to success. We can learn much from other countries and adopt some of their ideas. But wholesale transfer never works – education is context related and reflects a country’s society and ambitions.

Professor Deborah Eyre

Opening a values driven school

‘Opening a values driven school’ by Luke Sparkes

Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford opened with 112 Year 7 students on 4th September 2012 and will rise to its full capacity of 720 students by September 2018. As a start-up, we had to do everything from scratch. Every staff member, system and policy had to be recruited or written. But it was also a chance to craft a school culture that has the highest standards.

Our academy is heavily oversubscribed. By the end of last year, students from the Class of 2020 (now Year 8) had made over 17 months’ progress in reading in a 9 month period, and the Class of 2019 (now Year 9) had made 31 months’ progress in a 21 month period. In January 2014, we became the first secondary free school to be judged outstanding in every category by Ofsted: ‘In this academy, only excellence will do’.

Starting a school is hard work and there are many challenges; however, growing a school is not as demanding as trying to turn a school around. For example, it is much easier to establish a strong school culture with just one year group and a small, newly appointed staff. We have made a strong start, but fully acknowledge that we are a young school with a lot to learn and that our first set of exam results will be the real measure of our success.

At Trinity, we have tried to take the best ideas from academies, schools, the independent sector and abroad. No individual element of our practice is revolutionary. Our core values of hard work, trust and fairness permeate all that we do. From the moment a student arrives at Dixons Trinity, we ask them to live these values. We also focus on three key drivers: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose (Dan Pink, ‘Drive’).

Image via @gapingvoid.

Image via @gapingvoid.

Mastery is the urge to get better at things that matter made manifest through our commitment to Practice (Doug Lemov, ‘Teach Like a Champion’). We practise key techniques collectively as a staff twice every week during Morning Meetings and engineer more tailored Practice during one to one coaching sessions. We have also adapted ‘the cycle of highly effective teaching’ developed by Achievement First and introduced ‘data days’ to ensure that evidence about learning is used to adjust instruction to better meet student needs.

For our students, mastery means trying to get better at every little thing every day. The message at Trinity is that ALL students are going to university. Teachers talk to students about ‘climbing the mountain to university’ by working hard and taking steps towards the goal each day. Our proportion of Pupil Premium students is high, and over 50% of students live in the five most deprived wards in Bradford, one of the UK’s most significant areas of socio-economic challenge. Our priority is to raise aspirations, encourage young people to have a growth mindset, and to progress onto higher education. We continuously expose students to university.

Autonomy is the drive to direct our own lives; at Trinity 100% of students present an exhibition of their Stretch Project at the end of each assessment cycle. In addition to their more traditional curriculum, Stretch Projects allow students to explore an area of interest within a given theme. We aim to develop students’ autonomy and grow their love of learning. Teachers are free to teach as they want as long as students learn and make progress. However, we do expect a few core strategies to be embraced by every teacher in every lesson; for example, a ‘no hands-up’ rule to ensure all questions are targeted and all students are engaged.

Purpose is the drive to connect to a cause larger than ourselves. Those who have visited the school have recognised that our structures liberate teachers to teach and students to learn – because students know why we do things, they buy into them. To keep motivation that lasts, we focus on two important questions. First, we ask a big question to orient our life toward greater purpose – what’s my sentence? In one sentence we state what lasting impression we want to leave on the world. Then we keep asking a small question for day-to-day motivation – was I better today than yesterday?

Starting a brand new school has taught me about the importance of keeping things simple. We established the school around a few concrete ideas that were not radical and everything we have done since has built on those first principles. It’s not the strategies that matter, but the way they fit together and the fact that everybody does them. We all share a common drive to make our school the best that it can be. We keep things simple; if we say it, we mean it and it happens.

Luke Sparkes is Principal, Dixons Trinity Academy, Bradford