Learning Without Limits

What’s the problem?

Uncompromising expectations for all? Progress regardless of starting point? Nothing to argue about here, and it’s not astounding or new to say that it comes down to expectations and mindset. A fortuitous Google search when looking for a clip for the SSAT NC workshop I co-delivered yielded this:

It’s well worth a watch.  But what does this look like in practice?  How do we plan and structure learning so that this becomes a reality and students make progress from their individual starting points so no learning time is wasted and expectations are ambitious for all? This is the first in a number of posts that will share an approach that we have found has gone some way to doing this.

I wrote here about Bloom’s taxonomy and how its use as a teaching model rather than the assessment model for which it was intended, has potentially limited expectations in the classroom.   Of course, it’s not just Bloom’s which has the unintended effect of capping expectations of students.  Any form of differentiated learning outcomes – all, most, some; must, should, could; any direction of students to undertake tasks based on a number or letter has the same effect.

I thought this approach had all but vanished but I think I may be being naive here. My husband who, as part of his role at the University of Nottingham, works with English PGCE students tells me that over 70% of the schools he visits still use some form of this approach to underpin their planning and delivery of lessons.  So what’s the alternative?

An alternative mindset when planning to learn

I started thinking and working on this in April 2013 and fundamentally it’s about changing a mindset, an approach to planning lessons. Following some feedback I was listening to in April 2013 on some of the teachings which had been seen within the school, a comment was made about maximising learning time for all. Too often students were spending time undertaking tasks they didn’t need to or conversely moving on to tasks when they were not ready.

I started to reflect on my own practice – how often did I do that?  A vertical approach to lessons was evident in the fact that I would write the lesson outline of our learning journey on the board in a number of steps.  I consider myself proficient at differentiation and I would always ensure that all students could access the learning question I was exploring that lesson or series of lessons. I would always move students on when I felt they were ready but in essence, I still expected all students to move through the lesson/scheme of learning in a vertical way.

I thought back to an A level language lesson I had taught earlier that week where we had all undertaken a discussion of a text we were then going to analyse. Two thoughts came to mind – why did I expect student X to sit through this?  She had a good grasp of the linguistic frameworks required and she was able to structure her responses so that they started with consideration of context first.  My other thought related to student Y.  How much had she actually gained from listening to the discussion?  There were some gaps in her knowledge in terms of the linguistic frameworks she needed and she also had a tendency to feature-spot.  I knew all this information before I started the lesson from my assessment of their work and I tracked this in what was a very early version of a PLC!

I used this information to tailor learning so that students addressed their individual gaps and in this particular lesson, students were focusing when undertaking their analysis on the assessment objective which they struggled with the most.  Yet it struck me that even though I did all this, I still wasn’t maximising learning time for all as much as I could.

As I sat and listened to the feedback that April, I started to sketch a diagram to try and visualise my thoughts which were now formulating about thinking horizontally not vertically.  I know that learning is messy, I know that learning takes time, I know that learning involves forgetting and revisiting, and I know that even if two students are given the same notional grade, their skill sets are very different within this.

Key principles

The key principles are:

  1. Teaching up – expect all students to achieve mastery and start the planning of learning here.
  2. Success is judged against the same assessment and success criteria for all regardless of where they start.
  3. Steps to the same expectation. Give more time, different support, building blocks to achieve the next steps towards mastery. There is not a ceiling – same steps to essentially the same goal. If you read my post on Bloom’s, the English lesson I referenced was a good example of how this works in practice.
  4. Students don’t all start at the same step but all should make progress to the same end goal.

An early worked example


What it looks like now


Three and a half years on, with much collaboration and trialling with staff, refinements and amendments, my original sketch looks like the one shown above.  It is important to note that in the evolution of the diagram, the steps and dotted lines didn’t appear on the initial document. Originally the diagram was just blocked with fully defined lines as in the early example. This didn’t visualise adequately the notion that students were all climbing to the same destination and it promoted a ‘blocking off’ and discrete tasks -which was exactly what I was trying to avoid!

What it’s not

This is not a lesson plan. It is an attempt to visualise and codify a way of thinking/mindset.  It encourages staff to think about where on the journey students need to start.  This is individual and particular to the learning which is going on at the time – it doesn’t matter what grade a student is targeted or working at, it’s about identifying what you know about that student’s readiness and where they would be best placed.  Students may skip steps, go back steps, stay on the same step for a while but the principle – that all students are expected to achieve the same goal but that the steps they take to get there are different – has transformed classrooms in our school.

Where next?

Part 2 will share some practical examples of our approach to learning design as well as sharing some of our successes and inevitable things we still need to refine.

Part 3 will focus on sharing practical strategies on one of the most fundamental aspects of this approach – making sure that students start at the right place on their journey.

In the meantime, I would welcome debate, challenge, feedback!

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Jennie Giovanelli and published with kind permission.


You need to or Register to bookmark/favorite this content.

About UKEdChat Editorial 3195 Articles
The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.