The Dance of Civility: how my face-off with a little old lady taught me to critique pedagogical orthodoxy

I ushered the elderly lady into the meeting room and offered her a chair. The chairs, despite being designed for Key Stage 1 children, were extremely heavy, so I lifted her chair back for her to sit. I then positioned myself at a right angle from her, so as not to appear too confrontational.

A small, lean lady in her seventies (I presumed), she fixed me through thick lenses and pursed her lips. The many Czech parents, with whom I had had dealings as Head of English in this bilingual school, had by and large been inquisitive, straightforward and polite. This particular grandparent was no different, but had come to me with one simple question: ‘What is differentiation?’

Several of the Czechs I had chatted to in my time in Prague referred to a ‘dance of civility’ that is done in British and American social interactions. It is characterised by a polite circling of any points of potential embarrassment and an assumption that the other person knows what he or she is talking about. It is not so much a deference as a deferred disbelief: we save our grievances or misgivings for after our interactions; perhaps later moaning on Twitter or complaining to our long-suffering other halves.

This little old lady tore me apart.

She had heard that I had decided that one year group, since it was being prepared for a single language exam, and had a fairly narrow spectrum of difference in ability, should be taught in mixed ability groups rather than sets, as had been the tradition previously. She was particularly concerned because she felt that her granddaughter, a particularly strong English speaker, might be dragged down by less-able peers.

“What is this ‘differentiation’?” she asked – the word sounding peculiarly Germanic amidst her thick Slavonic accent.

I put on my best ‘Tony Blair’ smile, eyeing her kindly (with just the right amount of expert patronisation), and launched into my schpeil:

“We ensure that each child is able to access… blah blah… pitching independent work at the right level… blither blather… progress is measured for each child… yada yada… it is better for the children to be together.” That was the general thrust of it, as I recall.

She didn’t blink. She just said, “How do you know the level of each child?”

I wittered on a bit more about APP (or at least an EAL version of it). She was not impressed.

“How can you possibly do all of that for each child?”

My gestures were becoming more pronounced at this point, as I earnestly tried to visualise for her just how excellent we were at placing each child on a grid and (in small groups, at least) devising the right activities so that they might progress.

“How can you plan several lessons for one lesson?”

I had accelerated in gesticulation to the point where I presume I strongly resembled a pedagogical version of a multi-limbed Hindu god.

“You cannot surely mark all of this work. How do you know what would be the right activity for each group? How can you be sure that one group is working if you are working closely with another?”

I had reached the point where I could no longer confidently answer this small Czech lady’s questions. I assured her verbally that we could indeed master all these variables and map progression in real-time for each individual child. But she could see that I was exhausted with physical justification, and as she peered sharply at me through those thick lenses, she turned her head just so. Our eyes were locked together at this point, and in turning just so, I had to turn my head too.

At that point, I knew. It wasn’t that she thought I was an idiot.

It was that she knew I was an idiot.

Stripped of the dance of civility and questioned to within an inch of my expertise, I could not faithfully justify my position. This is not a criticism of differentiation per se, but it is the perfect illustration of the adage: ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’

There are a great many initiatives and traditional practices in education that are highly complex and take years for us to perfect. Differentiation done badly is worse that no differentiation. An oversimplified practice is worse than using your common sense.

Now, when faced with a wealth of new initiatives, I am haunted by this small Czech lady. As my eyes lift from the latest treatise on how to improve reading comprehension or enhance feedback, I see those sharp points of light glinting off thick lenses.

Am I being as critical as she was? Can I be satisfied that this can be done in such a way that it will change children’s learning journeys for the better? Will they be able to do more? Will they know more?

Or will it be worse than it was before because it is just too difficult for me to do well?

I want to be an excellent teacher. But the raw material I have to work with is me. Whatever works: I have to make it work. And, curiously, that alters what works. I no longer believe that my professional development is simply a case of ‘me plus best practice’. It is now more a case of how I use my strengths to get greater impact for everyone in the class. That will be informed by what I discover in my travels, observations and research, but it will need to adapt to my capabilities and resources. I will take the best of what I find, and more willingly leave the rest behind.

A few years later, with a little more wisdom and pragmatism, I think I can face the grim stare of this lady again. She still thinks I’m an idiot, but at least she believes me now.

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