New group? New topic? Step 1: Find out what they know already!

It is a strong conviction of mine that far too many students are systematically under-challenged at school.  It starts from day one and carries on from there – simply because a) some teachers do not take enough account of what students learn elsewhere and b), even if they do, they find it difficult to cope with the obvious but messy fact that within a class, some students know things or can do things already when others can’t.

Story 1:  In my brother’s first week at school, aged 5, he was presented with questions like this:

He told my Mum about them. Simple enough, she thought.  So she asked, ‘what if you were given this’:

His answer:  “No, we don’t do nines!”
A much repeated family story – but an illustration that, from early on, my brother’s school-based learning was often a step or two behind where he really was.  The teacher didn’t expect it – so it didn’t count.  I’ve heard a similar tale from my own children countless times – ie that some bit of learning is not necessary because the teacher didn’t ask.

Story 2:  Year 6/7 Transition Day:  A Local Secondary School. 2011

A colleague’s child came back from their transition day and, rather than being fired up for the summer, eager to get into Secondary school, she was massively underwhelmed;  in fact she said it was boring.  My colleague was in despair.  How? Why?  The Year 6 students had been shown the school’s IT suite and asked to do an activity:  Making a Powerpoint.  They’d had to listen to an extended explanation of how it worked and then set a very low level task.  The point was that they’d already been doing Powerpoint since Year 4; the ‘big school IT suite’ didn’t impress – especially if it meant doing stuff they’d done before.  At no stage where they asked what they already knew.  What a missed opportunity! The students could have been asked ‘show me what you can do’, then leaving feeling valued, challenged and motivated – instead of the opposite.

Story 3:  Reading ahead spells trouble: 

Friends tell the story of their son getting into trouble in Year 4 because he’d already read the book the teacher wanted to read with the class.  She had told them about the book, he’d found it, started reading and finished it. He liked it and couldn’t stop.  The teacher simply couldn’t handle this situation…one child has read the book before the rest…. so he was soundly chastised.   This was not an act of defiance or deviance – but of eager learning.  Instead of ‘how fantastic, you can now go on to do this… or join in by doing this…’ he came home with the firm message that it is best not to do anything more than the exact thing the teacher asks.

And the point is?

OK.  So these little tales don’t prove anything. But I’ve had countless dealings with students, teachers and parents over the years dealing with the issue of a child being under-challenged in some lessons. I’d suggest that without any doubt, day in, day out, across the world, students will be sitting in lessons being ‘taught’ things that they already know or that are well within their capabilities.  They are being forced to get in line, conforming to the programme, hiding the full extent of their ability, getting bored and frustrated or simply coasting to under-achievement.

So here are some questions for anyone about to start a new topic or meet a new class:

How can you be sure that this won’t apply to you?

How will you find out what your students already know?

What if they are are miles apart? What will you do about it?

There are so many ways to involve students in this ‘what do I know already’ activity:  mind maps, flow charts, brainstorms and presentations, pre-tests – and all kinds of collaborative learning activities.  It is essential to kick off with these activities so that a) you find out more about what students know b) you can use this to inform your planning and c) you can identify key gaps and misconceptions that need to be addressed before moving forward. ‘Differentiation’ is so often inadequate but really it starts from the very first lesson, using students’ prior knowledge to inform every subsequent step.  No child left behind, for sure – but also, no child held back! That is the challenge we must rise to.

So, with term approaching, if you are planning your first few lessons with a view to teaching some very specific content in a particular way –  Stop!  You can’t really go anywhere until you have met your students and found out exactly where they are now.  What you need to plan are a range of possible contingencies and how you’ll to respond.


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