Differentiation: What Works And Why

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Claire Boyd

Claire is a Head of Junior School at Sydenham High Junior School GDST. She gained her QTS in 2005 and started her career as an EYFS/KS1 specialist in a large state community infant school in Hounslow, West London where she developed an interest in EAL...
Read more about Claire Boyd

How committed are you to differentiation?

Effective learning cannot be left to chance and differentiation is the most critical tool you have at your disposal to affect the learning process. The most effective teachers are those who continually consider the ways in which they can differentiate their approach to empower, support and challenge those they teach.

A Series of Interventions

To give differentiation the value it deserves, try looking at the lessons you teach as a series of interventions along a learning continuum. Every time you plan a lesson or interact with a pupil during the course of a lesson, you are making a conscious intervention; you are issuing a call to action for the learner to respond to the opportunity for learning with which you have presented them.

Every intervention you make really counts and it counts for each and every pupil in the class. As not every pupil in any class is the same or finds themselves at exactly the same point on their learning journey, effective interventions cannot and should not be the same.

Sometimes it is hard to decide what the most effective differentiation is going to look like in your class, especially as what works in one lesson is unlikely to work in the next.  If you can accept that effective differentiation requires ongoing consideration and you commit to putting it at the heart of all your lesson plans, there is no doubt your learners will reap the benefits.

Differentiation by Task Does Not Guarantee Efficacy

During my NQT year, I can clearly remember a feeling of smug satisfaction when I thought I had ‘cracked’ differentiation with my neatly planned (and sadly all too frequently worksheet-based) activities  which simply progressed from shorter to longer tasks for the pupils to complete.

It was very straightforward in my mind: lower ability pupils would work on two to three tasks or questions, middle ability four to five and those lucky higher ability pupils were treated to six or even seven.

I am ashamed to admit that I spent more time planning tasks extended in length rather than challenge. It took me a while to realise that this approach was not having the desired effect; it was not the golden goose of pupil progress I had hoped it would be.

Although at first a little scary, casting this approach aside was excitedly liberating. Moving to use what I knew about the individuals in my class to inform my differentiation methodologies quickly broadened the ceiling of learning and opened the classroom door to more purposeful outcomes.

Remember differentiation does not have to be by task; it can take virtually any form – questioning, the use of resources and scaffolds, adult deployment, group tasks and solo activities – so long as it is well-informed.

Look Back to Move Forward

Collect feedback from your pupils on what they felt had and had not worked last time. Encourage them to be specific. Set this feedback in the context of what needs to be achieved in the next lesson and use this to evaluate whether the same approaches will work again and whether they will work for all, some or none of your pupils.

The analysis and reflections you and your pupils make about the learning that took place in the last lesson will unlock your thinking on the best mode of differentiation for the next lesson.

The Power of Quality Questioning

By asking, and planning to ask, quality questions we require learners to provide responses that force them to practice using their higher order thinking skills. By targeting and differentiating the questions we ask of certain learners we can tease out knowledge, clarify thinking and address misconceptions.

Questioning – whether it is teacher to pupil, pupil to teacher or pupil to pupil – is the most effective way you can squeeze every single drop of thinking out of your interventions. In her book, Full On Learning, Zoe Elder sums asserts questioning as ‘one of the key influencers on the progress made by each child, [as it is] the most immediate and accessible way for teachers to determine how much learning in going on.’

Co-Constructed & Clear Success Criteria

Deploying different success criteria amongst the learners in your class can be an effective way of appropriately differentiating for the spectrum of learners you are likely to teach.  Once you have set the learning objectives and communicated the foundations for the lesson, the success criteria can for how these objectives will be met can be discussed with the learners and ensure everybody is clear on what their learning will be assessed against.

Do not shy away from having a variety of success criteria at large in your class at any one time; if they are personalised and appropriately tailored for the learners using them, they can act as powerful tools for classroom learning. Anders Ericsson’s The Making of an Expert widely accepted belief that purposeful practice is integral to the development of true expertise can be viewed as advocacy for the deployment of carefully considered success criteria.

Whilst no classroom is going to be able to facilitate the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice Ericsson promotes, it can certainly be used to direct and support personalised, guided practice.

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5 thoughts on “Differentiation: What Works And Why

  1. A useful look at differentiation, Claire, and refreshing to see that you reflect on your practice and what has worked – or hasn’t. Increasingly I believe that differentiation is an overused and sometimes unhelpful term. Inclusive high quality teaching is personalised and routinely uses questioning, visual support, printed notes, written instructions and more to ensure the lesson is accessible to all. Then there may be a few specific strategies for pupils with particular needs. In the best lessons I have no idea who in the class has SEND.

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