Meaningful Manageable Differentiation

35 strategies 

6 considerations when differentiating...

1. Opportunity Cost

I have switched my decision-making from ‘what works?’ to ‘what is the opportunity cost?’ I ask myself: if I choose to use this intervention/approach... does it mean I miss out on doing something else which is richer in what it offers pupils?” James Theo here

2. Mastery learning 

Tim Oates in Why textbooks count found that in Shanghai, “the model of differentiation and ability is entirely different to that typical in England. All children are assumed to be capable of understanding, and ideas are elaborated in different ways in order to encourage individual understanding... Singapore, Shanghai, Japan and Finland...all support a central model of ability and progression which contrasts sharply with the dominant model of individual and group differentiation present in the English system.”

The 2013 PISA findings here comparing countries' PISA performance with the extent of their differentiation make interesting reading.

3. Intelligence is not fixed

Dweck argues that, “It’s not either-or. It’s not nature or nurture, genes or environment…. People may start with different temperaments and different aptitudes, but it is clear that experience, training and personal effort take them the rest of the way".  Similarly, Neisser found [page 11 here] that “schooling itself changes mental abilities.”

Doug Lemov here argues that success can be encoded with “disciplined, deliberate, intelligent practice.”

4. All learners are unique

Nuthall found in The Hidden Lives of Learners that the processes of learning are essentially the same for all learners.  Differences emerge due to differing prior knowledge, motivation and individual experiences, meaning that around 30% of what each student learns in a lesson is unique to them.

5. Struggle is necessary

Learning happens when people have to think hard” [Coe].  Over-guiding students prevents this: “The aim of classroom instruction is ultimate mastery not error free learning” [Rohrer]. Shaun Allison writes hereabout keeping students in the ‘struggle zone’ between cognitive overload and lack of challenge.

6. Over-differentiation can be dangerous

Andy Tharby reflects here on some dangers of differentiation, including differentiation as a “life sentence,” while Harry Webb writes here: "isn’t it rather dangerous to use [differentiation] to decide to not teach certain children certain things? Learning is messy with lots of looping back and leaping forward –by assuming a theoretical progression and then imposing that on students, we might decide not to teach them ideas that they really could learn."

But what about Ofsted...

Jane Jones, Ofsted’s National Lead for Mathematics, writes here that “Ofsted does not have fixed expectations teachers differentiate to meet pupils’ learning needs...The national curriculum makes it clear that the majority of pupils are expected to move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace.”

So what is effective differentiation...

“Differentiation does not mean that you must have tiered resources and tasks in every lesson.  It does not mean you should have must-should-could learning objectives... Differentiation needs to be seen as the aggregation of the hundreds of subtly different interactions that you have with each of your students... real differentiation [is]: pushing, prodding, nudging, stretching…slow, subtle, nuanced, a step at a time, working around the class from lesson to lesson” Tom Sherrington here.

35 effective differentiation strategies

Differentiation through planning

Reconsider differentiated learning goals: “For years, learning objectives up and down the country have been shaped around ‘all…most...some.’  This is potentially really dangerous I think, as it lowers our expectations of what students can achieve.  Much better to have a single, challenging objective and use questioning, feedback and other means of support to encourage all students to aspire towards it” [Shaun Allison here].  

  1. Use benchmarks of brilliance @Reflecting English
  2. Use ‘fluid’ rather than ‘autopilot’ differentiation: what differentiation is appropriate for mastery of the particular concept or skill being taught?
  3. Know the current reading age of students, and what this looks like in practice: Readability Guide
  4. Use a differentiation class guide @Headguruteacher
  5. Group students based on their level of mastery of the concept or skill being taught so that they can access appropriate tasks, support and resources.

Differentiation through explanation

Differentiation should... be about how the teacher helps all pupils in the class to understand new concepts and techniques.” Jane Jones HMI. 

  1. Increase guided practice: “The most successful teachers... spent more than half of the class time lecturing, demonstrating, and asking questions” [Principles of Instruction]
  2. Ensure that all students have the necessary background knowledge and word comprehension for understanding @This is my classroom
  3. Develop ‘lower-end challenge’ by effective modelling to ambitious standards @Class Teaching
  4. Use differentiated explanations: Advice on going from concrete to abstract @Headguruteacher
  5. Create podcasts of explanations to differentiate through increased exposure 
  6. Use a range of differentiated explanation types:

Differentiation by task

“Pupils who grasp concepts rapidly should be challenged through rich and sophisticated problems before any acceleration through new content and those who are less secure should consolidate their understanding before moving on... Challenge comes through more complex problem solving, not a rush to new mathematical content. Good consolidation revisits underpinning ideas and/or structures through carefully selected exercises or activities” Jane Jones HMI.

  1. Create a ‘task ladder’ that moves students from shallow to deep understanding.  Students work at a level until they reach an 80% success rate: “the optimal success rate for fostering students achievement appears to be about 80 percent... students are learning the material [and]... challenged” [Principles of Instruction]
  2. Ensure that at the top end, students have the opportunity to explore above and around the topic by providing subject reading lists
  3. Stretch learners at the top end to improve their formal writing by introducing nominalisation @theplenary
  4. Increase lexical density @The Learning Spy

Differentiation through scaffolds

Rosenshine describes mastery learning as, “a form of instruction where lessons are organised into short units and all students are required to master one set of lessons before they proceed to the next set.”  This works because teachers, “have successfully provided students with scaffolds.” 

In Why Don’t Students Like School, Willingham writes: “Instead of making the work easier, is it possible to make thinking easier? ...Overloads of working memory are caused by such things as multistep instructions, lists of unconnected facts, chains of logic more than two or three steps long, and the application of a just-learned concept to new materias.” 

  1. Use models @Reflecting English
  2. Use multiple models @Reflecting English
  3. Use pre-flight checklists @Improving Teaching
  4. Use differentiated word mats to support writing (these can be created by the students)
  5. Use sentence starter scaffolds @Doug Lemov’s Field Notes  
  6. Use graphic organisers @Mapping out their thinking
  7. Use writing frames @Must do better...
  8. Reconsider using scaffolds at the top end:  Sweller and Tricot describe here the ‘expertise reversal effect:’ as levels of expertise increase, problem solving activities are more effective than studying worked examples: “More expert problem solvers have already acquired the knowledge necessary to solve a given class of problems. They do not need to be shown how to solve such problems because they do not need to engage in an extensive problem-solving search process to find a suitable solution. Reading a worked example is a redundant activity that increases extraneous cognitive load. Instead, learners may need practice at solving the problems so that they can automatically recognise the relevant problem states and their associated moves.”

Differentiation through questioning

Skillful questioning is key.” Jane Jones HMI.

  1. Move from shallow, closed ‘memory’ questioning (who, what, where, when) to deep, open questioning:
    Convergent-thinking questions: whyhowin what way?
    Divergent-thinking questions: mightwhat if...
  2. Insist on oral precision: ‘say it again properly’ @Headguruteacher
  3. Use inclusive questioning @HuntingEnglish
  4. Use wait time to gain extended responses @Improving Teaching
  5. Require differentiated verbal responses: sentence, extended sentence, paragraph...
  6. Develop effective questioning.  Powerpoint @Love Learning Ideas
  7. Differentiate responses:

Differentiation through marking

Harry Fletcher Wood describes marking as “our most frequent individualised teaching.” 

  1. Don’t base differentiation purely on data: “The main use of student data is to prompt you to ask questions about your perception of a student’s ability and progress” [Tom Sherrington].   Look also at students’ actual work to assess their needs
  2. Differentiate through ‘live marking’ @Reflecting English
  3. Match teaching directly to where students are.  My Favourite No @Huntingdon Learning Hub
  4. Create differentiated Taxonomies of Errors @Canons Broadside
  5. Create differentiated ‘Exit Tickets’ @Pragmatic Education

Finally, Headguruteacher reminds us here what ‘Teaching to the Top’ looks like.

Posted on January 31, 2015 .