‘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 every teacher and should be a routine part of planning. Only the teacher can differentiate their 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).  Pitch to the top and work out what extra help some of your learners need to get there (or as far as possible)

But what about Ofsted? (your senior leaders are more likely to say this than you are!)

Look what senior figures within Ofsted are saying (Tweets, right) Consider if you could have a common departmental approach to differentiation (which makes planning easier too!)

Ideas for differentiation

Differentiation by outcome

Giving all students the same task (and any supporting resources) and letting students attempt it at their 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 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)

For Against
•Requires very little set up and planning time•Can challenge and stretch students more than just differentiating by the 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.

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 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.

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 the risk of failure for SEN students and challenge G&T students

•Allows all students to make progress

•Promotes engagement

•Can tailor lessons to the 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, prior attainment data etc
  • Consider the relevance of what you are learning – do all students need to know the same things in the same level of depth? Are there parts of the curriculum you might want to spend less time on (and parts you want to spend more on)
  • How will you get learners to remember what they have learned in lessons? Look for strategies like retrieval practice
  • Build in praise when students get things right, and support and encouragement (with more praise) when they get it wrong to build resilience
  • 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.


One reply on “Differentiation”

  1. Thank you for yet more clear thinking. You cut through to the essentials and have saved hours of precious time. TAS

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