This post is based on workshops I have led this summer at both the Leeds Trinity University NQT Conference, and at Teaching and Learning Leeds 2017 (hosted by The Grammar School at Leeds). If you attended either of these sessions and have questions, suggestions or comments, I would love to hear them @funkypedagogy, or write a comment below. My thanks to Anne Williams (@agwilliams9) and Charlotte Wright (@commahound) for asking me to speak at these brilliant events and providing the impetus I needed.
differentiation: know your students and act accordingly. Anything which seeks to complicate this beautifully simple idea is missing the point.
There have been a number of heated debates in the teaching community in recent years about inclusion vs. aspiration; accessibility vs. challenge; differentiation vs. mastery. Such debates seek to set educational approaches up in opposition to each other and, in doing so, take each of those approaches to their most ridiculous extreme. differentiation does not mean that we should ‘dumb down’ the curriculum until it has no challenge at all, nor does Mastery mean that we never respond to students’ individual needs. Let’s do ourselves a favour and stop taking things so seriously!
The best practice I have ever seen, blends the best bits from a range of schools of thought like a classroom pick ‘n’ mix. differentiation is a powerful tool, but IT IS NOT THE GRAIL! It is not going to save you! It is not going to give you all the answers and solve all your problems! differentiation is just an umbrella term for a rag tag bunch of ideas which, if used judiciously, might just help your students to engage and make progress.
The following ideas are not new and they are not revolutionary but, in my experience, they work.
Why is it important?
differentiation recognises that every student is an individual. There are a huge number of factors which impact the young people in front of us, and these go beyond academic ability. We might differentiate in a lesson according to a student’s level of skill in our subject, but we might also consider: family circumstances; hobbies and interests; mental health issues (such as anxiety); confidence levels; recently assessed work; SEND needs; spontaneous needs within a lesson; whether they ate lunch today; student ambitions for the future, and even what happened in the local community the night before.
I work in a school in Bradford with very challenging circumstances; our children are faced with a huge number of barriers to their learning. Regardless of the kind of school you work in, every child has complex and significant individual needs at some time or other during their school career, and differentiation is about responding to these needs and ensuring that every child can succeed.
Hard vs. Soft Data
When I was an NQT, I tended to use hard data (test results, target and predicted grades) as a basis for planning and differentiation. I might have had separate work sheets for levels 4, 5 and 6 letter writing, or had a grade A* extension activity. While these strategies do have some benefit, the use of hard data alone can limit us to support students only on the basis of cold numbers (which are probably weeks out of date!), and ignore all of the more flexible soft data which is available to us.
Marking as planning…
Soft data from marking is the most recent and therefore the most relevant information we have. If we mark regularly, we can make key observations:
- This student doesn’t understand this process…
- These students are way ahead in this topic…
- These six students don’t understand the key terminology from the lesson…
- This student doesn’t know how to embed quotations…
Here is an example of how live marking might develop into differentiated planning:
- Identify students…
2. Observe skills through marking…
3. Range of personalised solutions…
n.b. NONE of these strategies is going to work every time – try something out, review it, change it and try again!
Seating plans are a little controversial. I don’t really use them to arrange the seating in my room; I alter seating on a lesson by lesson basis depending on what activity we are doing. For me, seating plans are a way to record information about students both for my own planning, and to support people who might cover my lessons. This seating plan was first developed at my old school by a very talented AST. Since then, my department at my current school have continued to tinker with it, and this is what they look like:
We use a colour coding system to record information according to literacy levels, engagement (including behaviour), challenge levels and personal context. Here are some examples:
I tend not to include much hard data on seating plans, but often scribble the most recent mock grades etc. on in pen as they happen.
Seating plans should…
- …be a live document (scribbled on and added to regularly)
- …include information which is relevant to your school and classroom practice (SEND, EAL, LAC, PPG etc.)
- …be used to inform planning, seating etc.
- …be useful (don’t waste your time if you won’t use it!)
Anonymised seating plan:
Strategies and Resources
- Support stations
These need a bit of planning and (dare I say it…?) printing! Support stations are areas around a classroom which provide differentiated support and strategies for students. These can be dictated by the teacher, or students can choose for themselves where to go.
In the example above, each table has a very specific target based on my marking of student writing. Each table has a range of resources and activities which will support students in a specific skill.
In the example below, students are able to choose for themselves what level of support they need, and can more up in difficulty over the course of a lesson.
2. Multiple lessons in one
This strategy is useful when you have a clear and sizeable gap in skill within one group. I teach a mixed ability Y8 class which ranges from students who can access GCSE level content, to students who struggle to access their Y8 texts. In the lesson below, I used the same poem with the whole class (‘A Poison Tree’ by William Blake), and they all ended by completing an analytical response to the poem, but they all got there by different means. The pink group worked completely independently and had challenging success criteria and prompts to encourage more sophisticated thinking, the yellow group worked in pairs for their preparation and planning, and the orange group worked with me on a guided group discussion to support their writing.
This kind of planning is VERY time consuming and resource heavy. I would probably only do this once per half term, per class. Any more and it loses its effectiveness.
3. Chilli questioning
This idea has been around for ages, but it works! Write differentiated questions and denote their level of difficulty using the chilli scale. Students then have the information they need in order to choose tasks which will challenge or support them.
@TeacherToolkit has an excellent blog post on using the chilli scale for ‘takeaway homework’.
Questioning is a gold mine for differentiation strategies. I’m not going to go through every idea here, because there is enough material there for a whole book! Here is one strategy which I use a lot and which has never failed me!
I write questions on a topic based on different skills in Blooms Taxonomy. Here is an example for Animal Farm:
One way to use these is to give a different question to every student (based on their needs), and to get them to answer the question at the start of the lesson. You can then teach your lesson as usual, and then ask students to return to the original question at the end (preferably in a different colour), and add to their answer from earlier. This has always been highly effective for me, and students enjoy seeing really clear evidence of their own progress within a lesson.
5. Differentiated questioning in Maths
A colleague of mine in the maths department uses the names of famous mathematicians to categorise levels of questions in his lessons. Students are able to choose which questions to answer, and can move from one level to another as they gain confidence and skill.
Another excellent strategy he uses is to draw a simple line:
…the line indicates that the questions will suddenly get harder. This could be done in pen in 5 seconds, and can provide information to students to enable them to make choices in your lesson, but also to provide some security for students who tend to have anxiety about certain types of task; the line says, ‘this will be harder, but that’s OK because you’re expecting it.’
6. Group role cards
Again, this is an old one, but it never ceases to be useful for me! I’m enjoying playing with unusual group roles…
7. Breaking things down
A lot of my differentiation is about taking larger, more sophisticated content, and ‘breaking it down’ to make it more accessible. This does NOT mean dumbing down or taking content out, it means giving students a route in. It is important that these strategies can then be given to students themselves so that, as they develop as learners, they are able to use them independently; a student won’t have a scaffolded text in an exam, but they can be taught how to create their own when they see the paper for themselves.
This one uses the magnifying glass reading technique, where students are slowly introduced to a text piece by piece. This can help with student confidence levels; it is far easier to read a full A4 page of text if you have already engaged with a sentence or a paragraph in isolation.
8. Cutting holes in things!
You can cut small holes (for looking at individual words) or larger holes (so students can see whole paragraphs etc.). This is a lovely, low tech, whimsical activity which my students love from Y7 up to Y13. Looking at small sections of text in isolation allows students to access detail before being faced with the whole thing.
An analyser can be used for a range of different things. Take an A3 piece of paper and cut a roughly A4 sized hole in it. Now you have a frame you can use for:
- A peer or self-assessment tool (key elements of the mark scheme and assessment criteria around the outside)
- A writing scaffold (students complete a piece of extended writing, and the frame has key structural elements and reminders)
- A reading scaffold (the frame has key question prompts and statements to help the student to read critically)
9. Chunking writing
Instead of asking students to write on a blank page in their book, get them to fill in smaller boxes. They are often tricked into writing more than they might have otherwise…
The ‘Hot or Not?’ list from Amy Thompson (@Ladbroa01) is a great idea:
Create a list of vocabulary or key ideas. This is a ‘hot’ list for weaker students, and they have to try to use the content in their work. For stronger students, this is a ‘not’ list, so they have to think outside the box and find alternative ideas.
Metacognition is an incredibly important skill for students who need to become independent, resilient and ambitious learners. Why not use students’ own observations of their learning as part of your soft data?
You may have seen the comfort/challenge/panic graphic from @teachertweaks. This is a great tool to remind us that we need the right amount of struggle in order to facilitate learning. Why not ask your students to think about what comfort, challenge and panic zones look like for them, and complete their own version? As a teacher, you can then use this student reflection to inform your planning.
I talk about marginal gains wheels a lot. Why not use a marginal gains wheel for students to demonstrate their confidence or level of skill in a topic, and then use this to inform your planning and differentiation? I asked my Y11 class to rate their confidence in the skills for the GCSE English Language paper (see below) and then used this to differentiate homework and revision resources.
12. Make ANY resource a differentiated resource in SECONDS…
- Filling a bit in for students (if there is a table or chart to complete, fill in a bit for those who you think will need it)
- Highlighting or drawing a box around things
- Post-its for… Reminders, prompts, spellings, key words…
- Go around the room with your pen and LOOK at work – write comments, prompts and challenges in books…
differentiation works best when you…
- Use soft data as well as hard data to inform planning.
- Base tasks and support on your observations of recent work – keep it live and flexible!
- Make your intentions, rationale and success criteria clear to students.
- Experiment, make mistakes, think creatively and don’t take ANYTHING too seriously!
differentiation is just an umbrella term for all the things you do to respond to the needs of individuals or groups. It isn’t rocket science, it isn’t new and it isn’t all that special. It’s just common sense. Having said that, the impact which truly thoughtful, sensitive and creative practice can have on our students is potentially huge. The best differentiated lessons are those where you can barely see it at all – students are just getting on with it because the teacher has predicted what issues might arise, and the level of challenge is there because students are being pushed and pulled along according to their needs. It’s not flashy or bold; it’s just common sense.
All the resources from this blog can be found in my One Drive here: One Drive Differentiation
Please feel free to use/adapt/share/bin as you see fit.
n.b. I have tried to credit all the ideas I’ve pinched from elsewhere, but I know I might have missed something because a lot of this stuff is well established and has been recycled a lot! If you notice any omissions along the way, PLEASE give me a shout and I’ll happily add names of original creators I’ve left out.