Masterful moves to match mixed abilities

Michael Shaw

Chess grandmasters can impress audiences by playing against 30 opponents or more at the same time, and winning.

It is extraordinary to see how they instantly catch up with the different situation on each table, even cajoling slower players who have yet to start a move while they have already worked their way round the rest of the room.

Of course, schools seem to expect teachers to do this every day. Lessons must be "differentiated", they are told, and take into account pupils' varying abilities. Unlike chess grandmasters, teachers do not have the challenge laid out in clear visual form on each desk. They have to store the background to each case in their heads, effectively playing blindfold.

Only one chess player has truly succeeded at playing simultaneous chess like that, and his record-breaking feat in 1960 has still not been beaten (it was Belgian-born George "Kolty" Koltanowski, who, taking a maximum of 10 seconds to complete each move, played 56 games blindfolded, winning 50 and drawing six).

To make matters even more complicated for teachers, they are now also expected to take into account pupils' differing approaches to learning. In the games world, this would be the equivalent of switching from chess to poker to ping-pong as they move between the tables.

But a major reason that differentiation often goes wrong is precisely because teachers can see it as a simultaneous contest. They regard it as something that must be done to every pupil individually, in every lesson, rather than done for the class. Or they think that they must provide different levels of teaching for each group separately. This, as teacher trainer Geoff Petty notes, can lead to disaster, with lower expectations for weaker pupils and higher expectations for stronger ones, consequently widening the gap between them.

What is needed instead are the kinds of challenges that will stretch all pupils to the maximum of their potential, even if these require extra thought to create. So pack away the individual chess sets. A new analogy is needed for differentiation. Mixed-ability volleyball, anyone?

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Michael Shaw

I'm the director of TES Pro and former deputy editor of the TES magazine. I joined the publication as a news reporter back in 2002, and have worked in a variety of journalistic roles including editing its comment and news pages. In 2013 I set up the app version of the magazine, TES Reader, and the free TES Jobs app Michael Shaw

Latest stories

Schools need to be ready for any blame pushed onto teachers by unhappy pupils

GCSE results day 2021: How to handle TAG unhappiness

What should a teacher do if a student blames them for not getting the GCSE grade they think they deserve this year? Tes rounds up advice for those preparing for that possibility
Grainne Hallahan 5 Aug 2021
Teacher assessed grades, TAGs, results day 2021

SQA results day 2021: how we got here

It’s been a frenetic year – with exams were cancelled and the SQA due to be replaced – so here’s a recap of events on the road to results day
Emma Seith 5 Aug 2021
A significant proportion of students getting their results next week is considering an apprenticeship

Ucas: Half of school leavers considering apprenticeship

Over half of 17- to 19-year-olds who are receiving their grades next Tuesday, but are not intending to start a traditional degree course in the autumn, have considered an apprenticeship, says Ucas
Julia Belgutay 5 Aug 2021