Teaching strategies: Teaching less able students

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in March 2017.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here

Before we begin, I have an admission to make: I don’t like the term “less able”.

Less able than what, exactly? Less able than the more able? That’s a pretty banal and facile statement. Less able than they could be? Than we want them to be? Less able than the average student? If so, what’s “average”?

No-one is “average”; rather, we are all made up of myriad individual characteristics. If you take an average of each of us (height, weight, IQ, shoe size, etc), you won’t find any individual who is average in all respects. This is known as the “jaggedness principle”.

In the 1940s, the US Air Force had to refit fighter planes with adjustable seats because the cockpits had been designed around the average range of 10 body measurements taken from a population of 4,063 pilots. But because no individual met all those criteria, they ended up with a seat which didn’t fit a single pilot.

Not to be deterred by the jaggedness principle, as recently as 2011 the Australian Bureau of Statistics used the national census to find the average Australian. They announced that she was a 37-year-old woman with a son and a daughter aged six and nine. She was 5’4” and weighed 11 stone. She lived in a three-bedroom house, had about $200,000 still to pay on her mortgage and her family originally came from the UK.

However, when they checked this description against the census data they couldn’t find a single person in the whole country who fit.

So “average” doesn’t exist and we’d be wise not to compare students to the average, deeming some to be “less able” and others “more able”.

What’s more, the term “less able” implies a fixed state of affairs. The “less able” are destined to remain less able ad infinitum. They will always reside to the left of our graph, there to languish in the shadow of the bell curve.

No, I don’t like the term “less able” at all.

I prefer “lower-performing”, although even that niggles. But for all its faults, at least “lower-performing” has the advantage of being less permanent, less immobile. Someone who is lower-performing has the opportunity to improve their performance and become a better performer or a higher performer.

But this still implies an arbitrary comparison. What are we using as our measuring stick? The most recent summative assessment data? But surely this only tested students on their mastery of the most recent topic? Key stage 2 SATs results? But surely this only tested students in English and maths, and even then on a narrow field of study within these two subjects? Teachers’ predictions for end-of-year or end-of-course outcomes? The latest university admissions data shows the weakness in that, with only 16 per cent of A level predictions bearing fruit.

Whatever stick we use to beat less able students with, it will be – like all sticks, I suppose – narrow. Someone who is deemed less able by one measure might well be more able by another. We are in danger of arbitrarily writing off some students because they didn’t perform as well on a test than other students. We are defining them by way of a snapshot taken through a pinhole lens.

Whatever term we want to use – and I will stick with “lower-performing” for the purposes of this article – we must first accept that students cannot be pigeon-holed in this way. All students – like all human beings – are different, unique, individual.

We should not pool the “lower-performing” into an homogenous group and assume that what works with one of them will work with all and that what has been proven to work with “lower-performing” students in another school, in another district, in another country, (according to research evidence and meta-analyses) will work in our classroom.

The danger of differentiation

Caveats out of the way, let’s talk turkey…

Differentiation in the guise of “teaching to the middle” and scaffolding for lower-performing students while stretching and challenging higher-performing ones (and therefore – by definition – expecting less of lower-performing students), carries with it an inherent danger. It is, by any another name, “dumbing down”.

Differentiation of this kind is delivered by means of placing limits on learning, lowering a glass ceiling on top of students’ ambitions.

Differentiation of this kind might take the form of using Bloom’s Taxonomy to target questions at different students. For example, the teacher might start a classroom discussion by asking a question from the bottom of the taxonomy – a knowledge-based question which requires only a recall of facts – to a lower-performing student before moving up the taxonomy with higher-performing students.

But sticking to the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy does not allow lower-performing students to deepen their understanding; rather, it leads to surface learning.

And, to complicate matters further, this approach is guilty of assuming that because the taxonomy grows in difficulty, the bottom end isn’t as important and that higher-performing students don’t need to waste their time down there. Instead, they should be floating around the pyramid’s apex like Bisto kids following the gravy trail.

Yes, Bloom is a spectrum of task difficulty: it goes from easy – such as recalling knowledge – to harder – such as evaluating an argument. But it is a spectrum because it explores the full range of cognitive learning. Knowledge is just as important as evaluation.

Without knowledge, students can’t access the higher bits. In other words, without the bottom layers of the pyramid – the foundations – the whole structure crumbles.

In order to show their complete mastery of a topic, every student (no matter their current level of performance) should be able to answer a combination of recall-type questions (these are questions which can be answered in a short period regardless of prior learning) and developmental-type questions (these are questions which stretch students and develop the skills required for academic success).

Every student at every level of their academic development needs to answer questions on the full spectrum of Bloom’s Taxonomy; every student needs access to both mastery and developmental questions.

‘Twas brillig

Let me cite a familiar example often used in teacher-training. First read this extract from The Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Now answer me these three questions:

  1. What were the slithy toves doing in the wabe?
  2. How would you describe the state of the borogroves?
  3. What can you say about the mome raths?

I bet you had no difficulty answering these questions and you even, by default, used quotations from the text, didn’t you? But did you need to understand the poem in order to answer these questions? Or were you simply regurgitating isolated facts?

Now try these questions:

  1. Were the borogroves justified in feeling mimsy?
  2. How effective was the mome raths’ strategy?

You will note that the first three questions were from the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy whereas the final two were from the top.

This activity demonstrates the fact that questions and tasks which remain at the very base of Bloom’s pyramid create the false impression of learning, or “surface learning”, without actually helping students to develop and deepen their understanding of a topic.

So, to summarise, we should ensure that every student moves up and down the taxonomy by asking questions and setting tasks which use the following stems:

  • Knowledge: state; recall.
  • Comprehension: explain; interpret.
  • Application: apply; use.
  • Analysis: analyse; classify; compare; give reasons; explain the cause and effects.
  • Synthesis: solve; create; design; invent; suggest improvements for; provide constructive feedback on.
  • Evaluation: strengths/weaknesses; advantages/disadvantages; give the arguments for and against; compare and contrast.

In conclusion, we differentiate in the sense of “dumbing down” at our peril. Placing artificial limits on what we expect our lower-performing students to do isn’t the answer to the question of “how we teach less able students”. So what is the answer?

Teach to the top

Well, we should model high expectations for all our students, no matter their starting points and their most recent performance. We should teach to the top, not the middle, and ensure our classrooms provide challenge for all.

Of course, some students fear challenge. We need to eliminate – or at least mitigate against – students’ feelings of fear and hesitation by creating a classroom environment which encourages the making of mistakes as a sign of learning, and which explicitly says (through our choice of language, our modelling and thinking aloud, and the routines we engage in) that there is nothing to fear by trying your best and pushing yourself to do hard work. After all, challenge is innate…

In their lives outside the school gates, students are always seeking hard things to do, such as Pokémon Go! and Fifa. They are the YouTube generation who spend hours watching video tutorials, looking at graphic organisers on Pinterest or reading articles on Buzzfeed so they can learn by increments and improve their performance in, say, Minecraft, baking, football, make-up and nail art, hair design, and so on.

They love challenge when it is private because, in the safety of their bedrooms, there isn’t the fear of humiliation or peer pressure.

In order to promote challenge in the classroom, therefore, we need to reduce the threat level, we need to ensure no-one feels humiliated if they fall short of a challenge. Rather, they need to know that they will learn from the experience and perform better next time. They will learn by increments.

Of course, in order to set the right level of challenge for our students – hard but achievable with time, effort and support – we need to identify, perhaps through the use of hinge questioning (Teaching practice: Hinge questions, SecEd, January 2017: http://bit.ly/2mVCRSe), students’ zones of proximal development.

Lesson design

What else can we do to help lower-performing students learn and make progress?

First, we can put blocks in the way of students’ initial learning (or encoding) – what Robert Bjork calls “desirable difficulties” – in order to bolster their subsequent storage and retrieval strength.

Second, we can “chunk” information, ensuring we teach knowledge before skill. And we can link new learning with prior learning so that students can cheat their limited working memories.

Third, we can provide opportunities for our students to engage in deliberate practice, repeating learning at least three times but doing so in a different way each time, allowing students to do something new with the learning every time they encounter it in order to forge myriad connections and improve “transfer”.

And if all this works with lower-performing students then it will work with all students.

That’s the beauty of this “teaching to the top” approach to supporting lower-performing students: if you have high expectations of all your students and if you model grade 9 work rather than grade 5 work, then although some students will fall short, because they have aimed high they are more likely to achieve a better grade than if you’d placed artificial limits in the way of their learning.

What’s more, why show students anything other than the very best? Why model the mediocre? As Matthew Arnold said in Culture and Anarchy, “Culture … is a study of perfection, (it) seeks to … make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light”. So let’s bring all our students, no matter their starting points and current performance, out into the light and watch them grow.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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