‘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 a teaching assistant. Differentiation isn’t having three tiers of activity for every lesson (thankfully schools that adopted this approach are now seen as being dated and generating unnecessary workload for their staff. My philosophy was to imagine what you want your class to learn and differentiation is the little tweaks that you make to lessons to help them all get there – for example an extra worksheet, a results table or a set of visual instructions.
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…
|•Easy for the time-pressed teacher•Can be controlled in lots of different ways (e.g. setting a restriction on the 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)
|•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. I used to group students when doing a practical lesson involving taking temperature readings so that every group had at least one person who could read a thermometer scale.
|•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 for a group of students doing an experiment, one group of students might be given a scaffold to support their investigation whilst another group might only get a list of equipment.
|•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.
|•Can greatly reduce risk of failure for SEN students and challenge G&T students
•Allows all students to make progress
•Can tailor lessons to strengths of individuals
|•Much more teacher intensive
•Needs careful management to avoid students opting to do another group’s work or seeing it as easier/more desirable than their own
•Assessment can be harder for the teacher
Where to start?
•Knowing your students – subject assessment data, reading ages, CATS scores etc
•Be organised – teachers need a work-life balance. Throw in activities etc that require little marking, use peer marking & self assessment
Is there anything you’ve done that you’d like to add – if so I’d love to receive your feedback.