Differentiation–what does it look like in a mainstream classroom?

‘Differentiation is the process whereby teachers meet the need for progress through the curriculum by selecting appropriate teaching methods to match the individual student’s learning strategies within a group situation.’

Visser J, Differentiation and the Curriculum, Birmingham, 1993, University of Birmingham

Differentiation is the responsibility of each and every teacher and should be a routine part of planning. Only the teacher can differentiate their own lessons – it can not be delegated to the Learning Support department or simply copied out of a book.

Types of differentiation

Differentiation by outcome

Giving all students the same task (and any supporting resources) and letting students attempt it at their own level. E.g. create a poster to show…


For Against

•Easy for the time pressed teacher

•Can be controlled in lots of different ways (e.g. setting a restriction on number of words for more able students)

•Suits assessment activities – e.g. level assessed tasks in science

•Frowned upon since for many it’s the easy option

•Still needs careful planning to make sure those at the top of the ability range are stretched

•Can lead to behavioural problems as weaker students finish a task quickly (or perceive it as too hard)


Differentiation by support

Giving all students the same task and teacher directing more attention to specific students/groups of students. Could also be giving weaker students supporting materials for a task or specialist apparatus (e.g. a digital thermometer)


For Against

•Requires very little set up and planning time

•Can challenge and stretch students more than just differentiating by outcome

•Groups can be given less support rather than extra

•Can involve teaching assistants

•Can be hard to spread support or give where needed

•Can be used to avoid setting a suitable task in the first place


Differentiation by grouping

Putting students in groups chosen by the teacher. Could be grouping by ability, gender, interests, social/behavioural groups or mixed ability.


For Against

•Easy to organise

•Can promote behaviour and classroom management

•Mixed ability groups allow activities to take place that might not otherwise be possible (and more able students can benefit from this approach too).

•Need to know your group

•Need to set clear ground rules and promote a culture of cooperation in your class


Differentiation by resources

Giving all students a similar task but giving different resources. For example a students doing an experiment and then one group of students given a scaffold to support their investigation whilst another group might only get a list of equipment.


For Against

•Good for practical subjects where students may be working on the same task.

•Could be as simple as giving a number line to a group of students in maths

•Allows all students to achieve & progress.

•Takes more teacher time setting up than some techniques e.g. differentiation by outcome

•Can create a management problem where some groups perceive work as being different to/easier/harder than that of their peers

Differentiation by task

Giving students a different task to do based on their ability, interests or aptitude.

Could be as simple as getting each group to present the same information in different ways e.g. a scene in Shakespeare – a poster, a comic strip, a story, a play or an essay

Could be setting a different task for students – e.g. working on different sets of maths problems, working on different texts, reading different stories/plays etc.


For Against

•Can greatly reduce risk of failure for SEN students and challenge G&T students

•Allows all students to make progress

•Promotes engagement

•Can tailor lessons to strengths of individuals

•Much more teacher intensive

•Needs careful management to avoid students opting to do another groups work or seeing it as easier/more desirable than their own

•Assessment can be harder for the teacher

Where to start?

•Learning objectives – all/most/some or levelled objectives

•Knowing your students – subject assessment data, reading ages, CATS scores etc

•Be organised – teachers need a work-life balance. Throw in drama activities etc that require little marking, use peer marking & self assessment


This post is taken from a presentation I gave at a mainstream school recently.  Is there anything you’ve done that you’d like to add – if so I’d love to hear your comments below.