The Inclusive Science Group – Meeting 1 (Differentiation)

In the absence of a proper home for these notes, I’ve decided to host them here so that they get picked up by search engines and are accessible to a wider range of teachers.


The inclusive science group is made of interested educators from all phases and sectors who have an interest in teaching students who have additional support needs or special educational needs. It is organised by Rob Butler from the ASE and Jane Essex (ASE and RSC member) who both have an interest in this area of science education. Membership of this group is open to anyone, and attendance at the meetings is optional. Notes taken during the discussion will be shared with the whole group (assuming you asked for updates as part of the signup process) If you want to join our group you can sign up here.

Meeting 23rd November 2020

Focus – Differentiation

The notes don’t identify the contributions from members of the group unless they specifically request to be identified.

The discussion opened with Rob sharing this cartoon and reminding the group that what is good for SEND learners will also benefit other learners in the group.

RB opened with his model for differentiation, which wasn’t always appreciated by school leadership teams, was to pitch to the top and scaffold learners to reach there. This could be by extra resources, like a results table or a literacy scaffold or it could be additional support from a TA or the teacher. Schools may be reluctant to adopt this new model after years of book looks and work scrutinies, but Ofsted won’t be focusing on differentiation in the same way as they had before.

It was suggested that the word accessibility would be a better word than differentiation as it helps the teacher and isn’t about treating learners differently or separating students. The current system has created a lot of baggage around the 3-tiers approach and the impact on students (and what they read into it about themselves) Jane agreed that we have created language around labelling students and referring to ability. Our learners are diverse and there are lots of ways of learning and many ways of checking or evidencing this. One example is how we get students to record their ideas or findings in science. Students make progress in different ways, at different rates and by following different routes. Jane suggested that as a profession we lack exemplar materials or good case studies to help teachers with this. Action point: To consider how we can source and provide this support to help teachers of all career stages.

Another colleague pointed out that she uses the same approach as Rob in her lessons. She provides three tiers of a worksheet with the same learning objectives, but perhaps she needs to revisit what this looks like in practice.

Another teacher referred to the structure strips which she had discovered on previous CPD. She uses these alongside the student’s work to break questions down into smaller achievable steps. Sometimes these are smaller questions or bullet points and often link to the type of question being asked to help students answer GCSE questions for example. There are issues around the management of differentiation and the message it gives to students. Differentiation can be deterministic and how to we approach this challenge? Giving students a feel for a good answer can be useful. Role reversal, for example, asking students to take the role of the examiner and asking them what they might be looking for can be a powerful strategy. Giving students a feel for what success looks like can be an enabler as students don’t have an idea of what a good answer might look like. We are trying to give learners agency – quite often learning is passive and we get TAs to support in the wrong ways. These approaches go hand in hand with increased resilience and modifying what you do to develop this.

The phrase “Learning without limits” makes you think about teaching in a way which involves everyone without creating our own barriers, finding ways of making sure everyone in the class is learning in parallel rather than restricting some learners by activity. Several of the attendees had negative experiences of education and having barriers removed to help their learning. Everybody learns differently, we are very diverse and we need to celebrate that diversity and bring this into our classrooms.

Inclusive teaching has to include stretch and challenge. One example discussed was the structure imposed by a school who groups students for maths and science as though they were the same thing. Schools need to be responsive to their learners and consider ways they can help learners rather than holding them back.

A phrase in common usage is ‘teach to the top’ which teachers are interpreting incorrectly. They are giving a simple complicated explanation to the group which excludes many of the learners who don’t understand it. Literacy is a barrier to learning for many learners and thought has to be given to explanation, development and layering of explanations. In this situation, sets can be a positive experience but care has to be taken to avoid limiting the learning of learners and making sure that teachers have high expectations. We need to give learners the tools and opportunities to build schema so that learning is secure. An example discussed was specific heat capacity which was approached by the teacher who started with the required practical and students understood the basic concepts of heating at different rates. We need to build solid foundations for learners to build conceptual understanding because if science is going over students’ heads they won’t learn. We have to make sure teachers are confident to revisit content to act as a foundation for students who need it to build upon. Asks deeper questions about the purpose of science education – it isn’t just for passing exams but can be important for life or as a life skill.

The importance of linking to real-life – why do we need to learn that? The example of brass monkeys and the origin of the phrase in relation to expansion/contraction of metals and real-life applications of the science. Teachers get worried about what they can teach and they can leave out. RB suggested that research on science capital could be useful as it links science to everyday life and makes it relatable and he has had success in his own teaching, both in engagement and retention of knowledge when linked to real-life situations. Rob also posed the question of who would get the best GCSE grades (and who would have the best experience of science) out of a student who covered the whole curriculum superficially and a student who covered 75% of the curriculum in depth.

Allocating support/resources is where the relationship between teachers and students are key. This works best where the students make a choice – a choice to use the support, but also a choice which they need (which blank results table from a selection for example) In this situation the student isn’t being limited by the teacher.

Explaining to other students is an underused skill in our classrooms and not only helps with conceptual understanding but can also help with the retrieval of knowledge. Retrieval of memories is an important strategy for these learners.

A colleague who worked in a museum environment recommends a multi-sensory approach with students being able to handle and touch items they are learning about. This often promotes engagement that wouldn’t have been observed in a typical classroom environment.

Who are the ASE

The Association for Science Education (ASE) is the largest subject association in the UK. We are an active membership body that has been supporting all those involved in science education from pre-school to higher education for over 100 years; members include teachers, technicians, tutors and advisers. We are a Registered Charity with a Royal Charter, owned by our members and independent of government. We seek to create a powerful voice for science education professionals in order to make a positive and influential difference to the teaching and learning of science throughout the UK and further afield.

Support us and help us make science education better for all by becoming a member. More details at

The frustration that comes with the wrong assessment method

I’ve mentioned before that I train with a dog group.  The class is divided into classes from one to four, with dogs moving up a class when they are proficient and pass a test.

My dog has special needs and is extremely nervous around strangers, to the point she runs away from people she doesn’t know.  She’s reached the point where she is comfortable training with the people in my class but there are still a lot of strangers at training in the other classes.

Jasmine has demonstrated mastery of all the skills required to move to the next class and this has been observed by several of the trainers. Unfortunately, the club rules state she has to take a practical test which is observed by a trainer from the club.  Jasmine has what can only be described as a phobia of the lead trainer and so has panic attacks and runs away from him.

I’ve complained about the assessment method but the compromise put in place was only a minor change with the instructor stood a few feet further away.  Consequently, Jasmine is destined to fail each and every test that she takes.

So why am I writing about it here?  The feelings of frustration at being forced into an assessment method that doesn’t suit.  The feelings of failure when you can jump through what seem like impossible hoops. The feeling of experiencing an examination system that sets you up to fail. These are the feelings that my students have every day and after my experiences today I have a little more empathy with them.

Fortunately, I’m in a position where I can walk away from the training club (that’s my intention), but my students aren’t so lucky.  Spare a thought to your students with special needs and consider their needs and feelings at this time of year as they enter into a process from which they will come out emotionally battered and bruised, feeling like a failure.

The latest from Ofqual on 1-9

Whilst a bulletin was sent out to interested parties this week, there were no answers for teachers struggling to get to grips with what to tell their year 11 students (anecdotally I’ve seen less emphasis on predicted grades and more emphasis on what to do to improve their answers in schools).

The information did serve a purpose, and that was to remind me how my special school students have been let down by the system.  In the email we are reminded “New GCSE content will be more challenging” which is depressing for students who were struggling, because of their learning difficulties, to cope with the content of the old GCSE exams.

We are also reminded that the boundaries have changed, supposedly “The new grades are being brought in to signal that GCSEs have been reformed and to better differentiate between students of different abilities.”  What that means on the ground is that most of my students will fall within a two grade range rather than three. That’s hardly better differentiating between students of different abilities.

When you add these factors to the press (and government) talking about a grade 5 being a good GCSE pass and you can see why my students don’t want to take the exams.  They are made to feel that their achievements are worthless and that anything below a 5 doesn’t matter.

A government talking about expanding grammar schools has little interest in those students at the bottom of the ability spectrum, but for my students, the GCSEs are becoming less and less accessible with more exams for less recognition and lower grades.

(If you want to receive the 1-9 bulletins too you can sign up here)