Differentiation: Are high expectations enough?

//Differentiation: Are high expectations enough?

High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.

Charles F. Kettering

Last night someone retweeted a tagline from a post I wrote earlier this year: “Teach to the top, support at the bottom”. Inevitably perhaps, someone else took great exception to the word ‘support’ and asked why those at the bottom shouldn’t be taught. Why should they have to suffer support while everyone else got taught? This isn’t an unreasonable position and begs the question, what do we mean by ‘teaching’ and ‘support’? If it means the most able are given explicit instruction whilst the least able are consigned to busy work and withdrawn intervention, then no. What I wanted to express is that we should have an expectation that everyone can accomplish something challenging and then work out how to teach them in a way that makes this possible.

Somewhat flippantly, I pointed out that saying, “Teach to the top, teach to the bottom.” didn’t quite have the same ring to it, and they countered with the suggestion: “Teach to the bottom, guide at the top.” But this, I’m afraid, encapsulates much I feel is wrong with education. It’s all too easy to lower our expectations and give pupils easy things to do in a misguided effort to bolster self-esteem. And it’s tempting to consign able students to minimal guidance that often consists of poorly conceived ‘extension’ work. 

In an effort to move the discussion on I shared another of my favourite differentiation one-liners: ‘Same bar, different ladders.’ And this is what I got back:

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High expectations, Sue Gerrard stated, are not enough. Now I don’t want to caricature Sue’s position, but I can’t help but think it’s this sort of outlook that gets teachers branded as enemies of promise. (Do please read her comments below.)

Of course it’s not enough just to expect children to meet challenging expectations without offering any support. Hence the need for those different ladders. 

Let’s consider these examples.

Firstly, the 4 year-old with the dysfunctional family and glue ear. Having glue ear is going to be a major barrier to her learning to read because she’ll struggle to hear the phonics instruction she’ll be getting. Her family’s unspecified dysfunction may well result in there being fairly low expectations for her to achieve academically, and might suggest that she’s going to receive very little support from home. So what should we do? Lower our expectations? Accept that she’s going to leave primary school unable to decode?

I’ve certainly seen what happens when expectations are lowered in this way. A few years ago I taught a Year 9 boy called Sam. He’d been written off as thick, dumped in bottom sets and spent much of his time in student support instead of lessons. The fact that he couldn’t read meant he struggled to access the curriculum, and because he was regularly withdrawn from lessons he fell further and further behind. The well-intentioned thinking was that we should meet him where he was, find out what he was able to do, and make him feel better about being to do that. And because there was no chance he was going to get a C grade, no one objected. Oh, and because his family background was a bit on the dysfunctional side, no one at home was holding us to account.

But I quickly noticed that Sam’s writing was better than you might expect. His verbal comprehension was great. So why couldn’t he read? After some lengthy detective work I discovered that Sam had suffered with glue ear during Years 1 and 2. He hadn’t been able to hear what was going on in class for two years. And by the time the glue ear had resolved itself, it was too late: he was a ‘low ability’ student and his teachers’ expectations of him were rock bottom. Being bloody-minded and having a big gob often gets me into trouble, but in this case I was able to fight Sam’s corner. I told him that if he wanted it, I would move heaven and earth to help him succeed at school. After all, as John Tomsett says, “The best pastoral care for my most socio-economically challenged students is 5A*-C EM. Period.”

We arranged for him to have an intensive course of phonics instruction by a specialist teacher and blow me, within 6 weeks he could read fluently! By the end of Year 9 his confidence was as high as my expectations for him. He went on to achieve way more than 5 GCSEs  – I can’t remember the exact figure now – and has since gone on to study sports psychology at university. Because he could. Because he had been freed from the shackles of low expectations.

I’ve never come across a student who both hallucinates and vomits at will. I’m sure they would present some unique challenges and would require more than I could provide as a teacher. But would I lower my expectations of what they could achieve? Would I buggery! It’s far too easy to resign ourselves – after all, what can you expect from ‘kids like these’? I like to think that I approach every student I’ve taught as if they can achieve at the very highest level. I really believe that intelligence is not fixed and that we can all be a good deal cleverer than we currently are. A girl called Charlotte taught me that.

Charlotte had an E grade target and, I confess, my expectations of her were low. In the opening weeks of Year 10 she told me that she wanted to get an A grade and I, to my shame, tried to manage her expectations and let her know that his was unlikely. It would be enough of a miracle if she were to managed a C! The first piece of coursework she turned in was a lowly D. She was devastated. She took it away (remember, this was the old days) acted on my advice and handed in a C grade essay. I was chuffed; she was still devastated. She took her English GCSE at the end of Year 10 (something else we’re now no longer allowed to do) and got a C. Two grades above her target. By this time I knew she’d be gutted with this result, and she was. She still professed cock-eyed, unwavering faith she could get an A. But, I knew she couldn’t. Obviously.

You can see where this is going, can’t you? Charlotte continued to plug away and retook the exam in November getting a B grade. C’mon, I told her. Enough’s enough. Be happy with your B. But she wasn’t and retook for a third time in June of Year 11. And still she didn’t get an A.

She got an A*.

Now you can say what you like about lack of challenge and low expectations and the wonky Key Stage 3 curriculum and early entry being the enemy of promise; this girl was a grafter. She believed that she could be better than she was. No one ever told her she was gifted at anything, and she didn’t care; she knew that if she worked hard enough she could get what she wanted. Even in the brave new world of linear exams, Charlotte would have found a way.

So what do we do with pupils whose self-esteem is in tatters? Make them feel better by lowering our expectations? Or struggle to get them to believe that everyone who has experienced success has done so though hard work, perseverance, support, learning from mistakes and making damn sure that they try, try again. Of course high expectations on their own are insufficient – but no one ever rises to low expectations.

Last year I taught a transition lesson to a class of Year 6 students to prepare them for the ‘step up’ to big school. I didn’t find out I would be doing this until that same morning and just for the hell of it I decided to teach them a lesson I’d taught to my Year 11s on analysing Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. At the end of the lesson I asked them to tell me on a scale of 1 – 10 how hard the work had been (1 being insultingly easy, 10 being ear-bleedingly difficult.) And guess what? They gave me a 5! When I told them the lesson’s provenance I’m not sure if they were more impressed with themselves or disappointed by the lack of challenge presented by GSCEs. The point was, I treated them all as if they could do it and, by God, they could!

Every year I expect my students to get A grades. And every year I’m disappointed when some don’t. I’m sure, come August, I’ll be disappointed again. Never mind, next year I can try again and fail better. 

Of course children arrive at school with hideously complex and sometimes harrowing back stories. Of course we should be mindful of their fragile sense of self and unique and tangled needs. But we are not employed as social workers, our job is not to make them happy. Schools will need to provide all kinds of support, but teachers should teach. And teach as if every child can achieve extraordinary things.

Anything else is a dereliction of duty. 



  1. logicalincrementalism June 12, 2014 at 10:38 am - Reply

    I agree completely that teachers should teach and that they are not social workers. But it’s unreasonable to expect a kid with a ‘harrowing back story’ to get their ‘tangled’ needs sorted out via teachers making their school work ‘as hard as possible’. For some, that could be a recipe for disaster. Of course, then you wouldn’t have to teach them because they’d be out of the mainstream system.

    The situation in early years and primary is very different to that in secondary schools. It’s in those first few years that differentiation can make all the difference and when specialist support can pay off. Except that its often inaccessible until the damage is done.

    Six weeks of intensive phonics might be enough for a Y9 kid who no longer has glue ear, to be able to crack the reading code. But it might not be enough for a 4 year-old who still does have glue ear and can’t physically differentiate between phonemes. The Y9 kid, of course has the advantages of a decade more exposure to language, and now fully functioning hearing and auditory processing.

    I guess what got to me about your original post was that you appear to completely overlook the kids you don’t see, who get marginalised by the system, whose achievements the system sees by definition as a ‘disappointment’ and who aren’t Charlottes.

    • David Didau June 12, 2014 at 10:49 am - Reply

      You’re still missing the point that the key bit of “making work as hard as possible” is ‘possible’. Everyone should be expected to do something challenging. Everyone should struggle. No matter their starting point.

      I do realise that there are major differences across phases – I write as a secondary specialist because that’s what I know. We see the damage of low expectations at primary. No, 6 weeks might not be enough for a 4 year old who still has glue ear. In fact it probably won’t. But any lowering of our expectation that she can learn to read is indefensible.

      I guess what gets to me about the position you seem to be taking is that there are a lot of potential Charlottes about. She was marginalised by the system and I learned a powerful lesson from being confronted with my low expectations of her. Never again.

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  3. logicalincrementalism June 12, 2014 at 11:55 am - Reply

    But if you make work as hard as possible for the individual student – which I wouldn’t contest, I agree students need to be challenged – you are differentiating, aren’t you? What’s as hard as possible for the least able student would be a doddle for a high achiever.

    Also, having realistic expectations doesn’t make them ‘low’. The real problem with the 4 year-old with glue ear is not being able to get an auditory assessment done, not being able to get S&L therapy, and an expectation implicit in the education system that the kid’s difficulties must be due to poor teaching. Sometimes they are, but not always.

    With regard to the Charlottes of this world, I think we are talking about two different groups of students. Charlotte was in a mainstream school. She wasn’t marginalised enough to be at a special school, or in the complex network of alternative settings for kids who don’t cope, or to have dropped out completely. Just because there are Charlottes in the world doesn’t mean everyone is a Charlotte.

    The education system should be designed to meet the educational needs of all kids, not just the high achievers, or those in the middle range, or the Charlottes. It should have high expectations of all kids, but in order to meet those expectations, interventions from people other than teachers might be required. Despite the best efforts of people at the front line, the support system from outside school, as a system, has never been fit for purpose. Never.

    • David Didau June 12, 2014 at 12:00 pm - Reply

      “But if you make work as hard as possible for the individual student – which I wouldn’t contest, I agree students need to be challenged – you are differentiating, aren’t you?” YES

      I get enormously upset by ‘realistic expectations’ – yes, I think it does make them low!

      Is anyone arguing that people other than teachers are required to meet students’ needs? Certainly not me. It’s just that I see the role of a teacher as working to achieve the best possible academic outcomes for all students.

      But maybe we disagree about the purpose of education? For me it exists to make people cleverer.

  4. logicalincrementalism June 12, 2014 at 12:40 pm - Reply

    I think we’re just talking about different groups. Your post was about mainstream secondary students. I read it as referring to all students.

    I take your point that ‘realistic’ expectations are often low ones. However, a major obstacle to children outside mainstream schools getting an education suitable to them (a legal requirement) is having the ‘same bar’ as all other students, when a bar that’s qualitatively different but equally challenging might be better.

    • David Didau June 12, 2014 at 1:44 pm - Reply

      You’re right – we probably are talking about different groups and coming at things from different angles due to our different experiences. I have almost no experience outside of mainstream so will bow to yours.

      I value your position. I’m glad there are those like you fighting for those on the margins. And I’m not so foolish as argue that there may be some children who’s needs cannot be met in mainstream education – I confess I wouldn’t know where to start with educating them.

      I hope though that you can see the value of my stance too?

      Thank you for the constructive criticism

  5. bt0558 June 12, 2014 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    I often seem to agree with logicalincrementalism and here I agree with most, however I feel you two have come to an accomodation too easily.

    All students are different. There is a big difference between students in mainstream just as there is between mainstream and non-mainstream.

    What applies to mainstrem-non mainstream applies everywhere in my view.

    I would be intererested to know whether the potential negaitive effects upon students off high expectations which they cannot achieve is worth it for those who realise that they could achieve more but didn’t due to low expectations. Or do they not matter, a bit of failure is a reasonable price to pay.

    I could also produce a string of anecdotes about people I have helped e.g. the 30 year old engineer who was dyslexic but never diagnosed until he did a supervisory course with me, but why would I wish to do such a thing. That is my job, to help individual learners.

    People are different. For me it is often an issue of time. I find that when you tell someone that they have their strengths and their weaknesses and to learn this will take them a little longer then they are happy with that. It is motivating and achieveable.

    Realistic for me is stretching but achievable. My results tend to be outstanding results at all parts of the academic ability spectrum, not because of how good I am but because of how good they are.

    • David Didau January 2, 2015 at 2:44 pm - Reply

      People are much more similar than they are different. Emphasising difference leads us away from those universal principle that apply to all but the rarest outliers.

  6. srcav June 13, 2014 at 12:09 am - Reply

    There’s a great line in Terry Pratchett’s “The Hogfather”, when Susan is teaching algebra and some says “Algebra, but they’re seven, you can’t expect them to understand that”, she replies “yes I know, but i haven’t told them and they’ve yet to work it out.” (Paraphrased from memory)

  7. Tim Jefferis (@tjjteacher) June 13, 2014 at 8:46 pm - Reply

    The naysayers could do worse than have a look at Tennyson: “It’s better to have tried and failed than to live life wondering what would’ve happened if I had tried”

  8. […] High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation. Charles F. Kettering Last night someone retweeted a tagline from a post I wrote earlier this year: “Teach to the top, support at the bottom”.  […]

  9. […] a number of more recent posts about differentiation, I have made the case for making pupils struggle. But as a number of people have challenged me to […]

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  11. […] As David Didau said in the comments section of one of his posts about differentiation:  “People are much more similar than they are different. Emphasising difference leads us away from thos…” […]

  12. […] written before about both my concerns with differentiation and also some of the critique of the growth mindset trope – these to me seem almost like […]

  13. HS October 10, 2015 at 3:29 pm - Reply

    Perhaps I am being too literal but incase I have missed the point…

    If we aim for the same bar some students will inevitably arrive there first. If we create scaffolding tasks which conceal your underlying expectations (as you recommend in your book – which I am loving btw) and allows some extra challenge or additional tasks for the more able then aren’t you having different bars for the more able?

    Or are we talking about a ‘challenge bar’ being the same with the ‘content bar’ being slightly different?

    I agree the students are much more similar than different but when I walk into class on Monday some students will require less time in liminal space with idea X and the moment I get them to do something extra then I lose my same bar?

    • David Didau January 30, 2017 at 9:35 am - Reply

      The ‘bar’ is longer term. The lesson is the wrong unit of time in which to aim for high expectations of students’ progress.

  14. […] worst success criteria are those which misguidedly attempt to differentiate. There’s a requirement in many schools to break learning intentions down into levels or grades […]

  15. […] to “pop the differentiation bubble.” Differentiation ideas here from MrsHumanities.com. “Teach to the top, support at the bottom” from David […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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