The rapid expansion of Diggers Rest Primary School from 68 to 265 in five years has led to increases in staff, infrastructure and changes in the profile of the student population. The school now has more students from culturally diverse backgrounds and students with a range of disabilities than ever before.
Developing collaborative approaches to data
To accommodate this expansion, Principal Rachelle Hedger has worked closely with staff to maintain their strong commitment to knowing the students as individual learners and young people. This remains a distinctive philosophy of the school and is the foundation of their differentiated curriculum and pedagogy.
'We believe in the use of data as evidence of impact,' explained Rachelle.
'This year we implemented the Professional Learning Community (PLC) initiative, building upon our previous efforts, and all staff collect and use data with the support of data managers who are trained up to support analysis and guided discussion through the improvement cycle.'
'These collaborative meetings help us to use evidence to inform teaching and learning and focus the conversations on what is happening for our kids in the classroom.'
Creating flexible learning groups and pairing graduate teachers with mentors
Diggers Rest Primary School teachers use the Framework for Improving Student Outcomes improvement model to plan their differentiated curriculum, establishing flexible learning groups in the classroom that provide the right level of challenge for each student.
Teachers also use an instructional model that includes a range of differentiated approaches, including explicit instruction to scaffold the learning and using different types of activities to consolidate the instruction – from hands on, to group activities, paired and individual tasks.
'The teaching profile has also changed dramatically over recent years,' explained Rachelle.
'Each year we have employed a number of graduate teachers who we paired with experienced teachers as mentors and coaches. They model and support the use of differentiated approaches we expect.'
'In addition, our informal peer observation process 'Visits @ Diggers' helps us to create an open to learning culture, where staff are supported to share and learn from each other new ways to differentiate.'
A practised approach to intervention
In addition to a focus on quality differentiated, whole-class instruction, which is common to all teachers, the school has appointed experienced intervention specialists to lead the Tier 2 and 3 intervention programs in the school.
Students new to the school or showing limited learning growth, are exposed to further testing using a range of assessment tools, in order to reveal existing gaps in their learning abilities.
Individual learning plans are then developed in consultation with classroom teachers and parents to include agreed strategies specifically designed for each student.
Ensuring education support staff are included in the equation
The school has worked with their education support (ES) staff to make sure they are fully involved in the differentiated teaching model. They work together with teachers to support small groups in the classroom with explicit instruction and assistance.
ES staff attend and collaborate in the PLC meetings and also attend professional learning sessions alongside their teacher colleagues.
'We have strategically used our equity funding not only for our intervention specialists but also to build the capacity of all staff to provide quality classroom assistance and targeted intervention in literacy and numeracy to make sure all student have the opportunity to learn at their level.'
Hearing about the impact directly from students
The school's NAPLAN data is powerful evidence that the school's efforts to differentiate for all students, no matter their starting point, is paying off. Year 5 data places 82.6% and 87.5% of students in the medium and high bands for relative learning gains in reading and numeracy respectively.
'Differentiation is hard to do, it's complex work but if we all work together and have coherence in our goals we can work through the complexity and focus on empowering our students to excel,' said Rachelle.
While the school data illustrates what effective differentiated instruction is, it is also important to find out how the students are experiencing differentiation.
'At Diggers the teachers know me and know my level. They give me good feedback about where to go next or what I am doing wrong. I feel supported,' said Year 4 student Lachy.
'My reading intervention has helped me to be more confident. I do a lot more reading in my week and have lots of people helping me,' said Year 4 student Billie.
'Mr T understands our different levels and he knows where I am at. I feel comfortable but challenged at the same time. He pushes me to be the best I can be,' said Year 6 student Sarah.
'We are shown lots of ways [to solve problems] and then our teacher will give feedback and constructive criticism to help us find our way,' said Year 6 student Cooper.
'I'm being challenged to use a variety of strategies when working out math problems. It's not about the question, we can all do the same question. We are encouraged to work it out and go deeper in our learning,' said Year 3 student Kingston.
Principles of successful differentiation at DRPS
- Build strong connections and learning relationships with your students by taking an interest in their lives beyond the classroom, in addition to understanding their learning needs.
- Work as a team to plan the differentiated teaching program - sharing the load amongst the teaching team.
- Use learning data as the basis to plan and evaluate the learning program using the FISO Improvement Cycle.
- Empower and train Education Support Staff to work alongside teacher colleagues to support the development and delivery of differentiated programs for students.
- Celebrate the learning gains - from individual students, to cohort level.
- Mentor and support new and graduate teachers to learn to use the school's differentiated instructional model.
- Always bring the students along on the learning journey by giving them agency in their learning pathway and ways to understand where improvement or effort is required (metacognitive strategies).