Differentiation often gets a negative press – it is dismissed as ineffective, adding to workload and lowering expectations. But it is a requirement of the qualified teacher standards and it is also a logical response to the realities of the classroom.
There is no point in teaching someone something they already know, and some learners know a lot more than others. If we don’t do anything to adapt to this, we run the risk of wasting learning time.
Differentiation starts with an understanding that not everyone knows the same things when they arrive in your classroom. However, it is important to be realistic about how much differentiation you can achieve, especially if you teach a large number of students.
By the end of September, primary teachers have spent over 100 hours with their children; some secondary teachers won’t spend 100 hours with a class in an entire year. As the saying goes, ‘you do the math’.
The right reaction
One of the key issues with differentiation is that people can’t agree what it is: is it making different worksheets, having various tasks going on, grouping your learners by attainment or using a carousel of tasks?
It is time to reclaim differentiation as simply about reacting to individual learners and their differing skills, needs and knowledge. Differentiation is often subtle and easily missed, and it cannot necessarily be outlined on a lesson plan.
It is differentiation when you ask a child who has her hand up to answer a question, with the aim of boosting her confidence. It is differentiation when you give a learner with EAL a text that you will be studying in the next lesson, so he has time to get to grips with it beforehand.
In other words, it is responsive teaching. Here are some time saving methods to increase differentiation in your classroom:
Ask your students to choose their best piece of work from the previous year, and to stick this in the front of their exercise books, to create a ‘marker’ for prior attainment. Start any topic by finding out what your students know, and what they are interested in finding out. Ask them to write their knowledge and questions on sticky notes, to put on a working wall. Use the questions that they had at the start of the topic as a way to stretch them during the topic or at the end.
Incorporate ‘you be teacher’ – asking your students to teach someone else something is a great way to challenge them and test their understanding. Encourage your learners to make choices around their learning, and to set themselves targets. Remember that ‘attainment’ is not the only measure of difference – it could be that you need to differentiate for levels of motivation as well.
Use one resource in several ways – instead of making different worksheets, ask students to use the same worksheet in various ways. Try the ‘3 column method’: create a middle column of questions set at the ‘average’ for the class, a left hand column of easier questions and a right hand column of harder ones. Everyone should attempt three questions in the middle column, then move to the left column if they find them hard, or the right column if they find them easy.
Set targets to both stretch and support your learners. For instance, when using the same task with everyone, challenge some students to complete the task in a shorter time. When doing a piece of writing, increase the level of challenge and complexity by setting a strict target – for instance, it’s harder to write something ‘in exactly twenty words’ than it is with an open ended word count.
An orderly classroom
Remember that differentiation is not just about teaching and learning – it is about classroom management as well. Think about where you seat your learners, sitting those who struggle to focus near the front to avoid distractions. When handling difficult behaviour, adapt your tone of voice or your body position to suit the likely reactions of different students. And remember, every time you respond flexibly to the needs of an individual that is differentiation.
Sue Cowley is a writer, presenter and trainer who has taught in both primary and secondary schools. Her latest book is The Ultimate Guide to Differentiation. Find out more at suecowley.co.uk.
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