Top Down Planning

According to Carole Dweck in her book Mindset, having higher expectations of people can lead to improvements in their levels of attainment. Believing there is a ceiling to one’s achievement creates a ceiling to one’s achievement, the argument goes.

In school, I translate this into, a student who is predicted a C runs the risk of never being challenged at higher than a C. All students are capable of achieving the highest grades (though clearly, it may take some of them literally years to achieve them, a luxury which is denied them, and us, at school). This doesn’t seem like news to me, but then, I am the product of a public school education: our ability to accomplish anything was drilled into us every day. It is something that I feel is lacking from a lot of state schools, for whatever reason.

Top down planning can help to redress this. Other benefits include a life made easier by differentiating in only one direction, and providing challenge for your most able which may lead to improved behaviour from those students.

Start by mentally identifying the brightest student in the class you’re planning for. Look at the data but use your own judgement too. Plan your lesson as if all your students were working at the same level as your chosen student. Create your resources for him/her and pick out lesson activities that will provide appropriate challenge.

Now you need to add scaffolding for the rest of the class. Pick a student from the middle and a student at the weaker end and think about what support they will need to achieve success in the activities you have planned. My example is a note-taking exercise in which students have been instructed to condense three pages of textbook information (I love a good chunky textbook) into notes to answer the question, “What factors lit the fuse of the Civil War?”


On this sheet, the brightest students have what is essentially a blank sheet, to enable them to write as much or as little as they choose. The six headings are taken directly from the text; there is not a great deal of point in this sheet, other than it being a nice little visual and making it less easy for students to work out who is doing which exercise.


Students “in the middle” have a little more structure. Here on sheet 2 I have written headings for key pieces of information (such as the date) and provided some question prompts to help them identify the facts they need to include in their notes.


Students working in a lower ability range have a lot more structure to their sheet. They have a combination of gapfill and some questions to help scaffold their note-taking as carefully as possible without it becoming meaningless.

When I teach this lesson, I go around handing out the sheets and asking if students want Normal or Extra Challenge. What is “Normal” will naturally vary depending on the prior attainment of each student, so this is where your AfL comes in – use their previous work to help you assess which version is their Extra Challenge. It is common for students with high prior attainment to coast by asking for sheet 2, but it’s quite straightforward to flatter them into attempting sheet 1 and offering a copy of sheet 2 “just in case”. Likewise, the students with lower prior attainment who want to challenge themselves get sheet 2 but I might leave a copy of sheet 3 on the desk too, so they can refer to it if they get a bit stuck.

This method of planning works well for me because, as I said, it means only differentiating in one direction. I only have to think about how to scaffold for those who need a bit of extra help, rather than working out that scaffolding whilst at the same time coming up with an exciting extension activity to challenge the able and/or enthusiastic students who burn through the tasks in half the allotted time.

I think this method also leads to stronger culture of achievement in the lesson. Sometimes everybody is a bit weary and the uptake of “Extra Challenge” is never going to be as high on a Friday afternoon as it is on a Wednesday morning, but over time more students start to opt to challenge themselves without your coercion.


Update: I came across this excellent blogpost by headguruteacher today. It was published before his blog made it into my Reader but I think it makes excellent reading alongside this post.

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2 Responses to Top Down Planning

  1. Adam Jacob says:

    Nice post Sally. Cheeky question: Can a trigger light a fuse? Maybe it should be matches? (Honestly its only walnuts that are pedantic!)

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