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Teaching & Learning

Pitching Learning to the ‘Top’ – it’s all about CHALLENGE

Challenge for all blog

13 years ago I was a fresh-faced 22 year old having just qualified from my PGCE study and the reality had just hit home, I was about to go into my first full-time teaching post. No doubt this anticipation and excitement, tinged with a little anxiety will be shared by hundreds of NQT’s this year too. Something I personally found particularly difficult to get my head around during my teacher training was the easy to say but rather complex aspect of differentiation.  So I thought I’d post this short blog on differentiation or by shifting the language, what I like to call challenge for all.  The Training and Development Agency for Schools, define differentiation as; the process by which differences between pupils are accommodated so that all students have the best possible chance of learning. In simple terms differentiation has been generically categorised into three distinct elements, although not mutually exclusive, they are:

  • by support; giving more input assistance to certain pupils within the group.
  • by outcome; devising and setting open-ended tasks, allowing pupil to respond at different levels.
  • by task; setting different tasks for pupils of different abilities.

Obviously the quality and interpretation of pupil data is an essential starting point to inform and underpin the above aspects effectively. With an increasing emphasis on the more ‘able’ and those with specific educational needs, how differentiation is pitched is crucial in ensuring the hidden ‘middle’ are/are not challenged in their learning. Hence the shift in language to ‘Challenge For All’. Therefore I pose the question: when planning a lesson or series of learning episodes do you; a) construct learning from the middle ability band upwards and downwards? or b) pitch learning above the highest ability and distill down? Your answer to this two-part question could be the difference when we consider challenge for all learners, one crucial element of the 2015 Framework for School Inspection.

So, what’s the point in pitching learning to the top?

I would argue that pitching learning to the top (ability)/beyond the top not only raises the bar in terms of aspiration for all learners, but it also reduces teacher workload in terms of planning time. Let me explain in more detail; teaching to the middle or lower ability of the group will perpetuate lower aspirations and attainment, whereas pitching learning to the top and scaffolding learning down will raise the bar in terms of aspiration and challenge, as John F. Kennedy once said: “The rising tide lifts all the boats.” This strategy can be applied in any context and educational setting, as we know, even within prescribed academic streaming/setting there’s still variation in ability/attainment, it’s very narrow-minded to assume that all ‘top set’ students are of the same ability/grade. This sits in parallel with the principle of mastery learning, compare and contrast these two Key Stage 3 models:


I would argue through extensive classroom based action research I’ve personally undertaken, pitching learning to the top makes it easier for me to scaffold up and distill content down, thus meeting the diverse learning needs of my students posing a higher level of challenge. I believe the reason for this is that I have a clear end point, so my planning for learning is shaped more around a flight path model as opposed to a middle up/down approach.

What does the research tell us?

The EEF research into differentiation confirms that recent meta-analyses support the conclusion that individualising learning for whole classes is not beneficial for pupils’ learning.  It goes onto discuss the impact of challenge (differentiation) in relation to ability and how this is beneficial to students learning. More significantly the Differentiated Instruction Provincial Research Review indicates that:

  • Effective differentiation begins with and is shaped by ongoing assessment for learning activities
  • Differentiation enhances student self-confidence and engagement
  • Differentiation instruction helps students become more self-directed and meta-cognitive as learner

A quite compelling conclusion to the report goes on to explain that effective differentiation tailored to student ability “clearly has the potential to create environments that maximise learning and the potential for success for all students, regardless of skill level or background”.

To conclude, my personal view is not to over complicate Challenge for all, but remember pitch to the top and distill content down, scaffolding up, this dimension is the critical element, otherwise we may be creating potentially engaging learning experiences for some students that is inaccessible to them, therefore having the adverse effect, significantly limiting their progress. In a nutshell, challenge for all should be teacher based and student centered.

Recommended reading: The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners



About garysking

Deputy Headteacher - leader of Teaching & Learning. Change maker and believer in quality first teaching.

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