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Adaptive teaching – What it looks like & why it’s important

Young pupils in class, representing adaptive teaching

Adaptive teaching is about making reflective, real-time observations that allow you to change your teaching on the go…

Hannah Day
by Hannah Day
DOWNLOAD A FREE RESOURCE! Adaptive teaching strategies – 5 ideas to try

What is adaptive teaching and how is it different to differentiation?

While many of us are familiar with differentiation, adaptive teaching seeks to go further and iron out some of differentiation’s unintended consequences.

Differentiation aims to tier lessons according to ability – this consequently leads to us having lower expectations for some and widening the attainment gap. On the other hand, adaptive teaching aims to get all students to the same level of understanding and skill.

You’d usually consider differentiation while planning your lesson or topic. Adaptive teaching is about making reflective, real-time observations that allow you to change your teaching on the go.

Adaptive teaching in practice

Firstly, before you worry about another layer of work, the chances are you are doing a lot of this already. Have you ever explained one idea or concept in two different ways after the first fell flat?

Have you ever provided extra examples, or an analogy, presented information in a different way or added more exercises to a lesson as a result of identifying an understanding weakness?

“The chances are you are doing a lot of this already”

Any time you modify your teaching or planning, as a result of identifying learning needs, you are practising adaptive teaching.

However, in order to ensure you’re doing adaptive teaching properly, it’s important not to solely rely on picking up on issues as you go along. Instead, you need to insert points into your lesson where you actively assess students. This means you’ll be supporting them in relation to their actual needs.

Micro assessments

With this in mind, step one is to know what students have understood and what they’re still struggling with. Building in moments of micro assessment – the kind that doesn’t need to be marked – will help you to do this. Three examples of this are:

  • RAG rating cards – ask students to hold up the colour (red, amber, green) that best represents how they view their understanding after you’ve taught a topic
  • Mini whiteboards – pupils write answers to questions, and all hold them up at the same time
  • Voting – break down the lesson into its elements and ask students which they found the easiest/hardest

If you find that your class is generally progressing at the same rate then it’s easy – you move on or re-visit as needed. If the response is varied, this is where differentiation comes into play. However, you want the kind of differentiation that supports everyone with their personal learning gaps, rather than differentiation pitched at varying levels.

Adaptive teaching resources

The following ideas are ways to use differentiation with the aim of achieving deeper engagement for everyone.

Targeted worksheets

Have a variety of worksheets on standby to give out at the end of sessions or topics. This works particularly in key subjects such as maths and English. Hand out the tasks based on where you’ve just assessed each student’s weakest area to be.


Homework can also be an incredible tool for meeting the needs of a varied class. Ask children to complete revision tasks based on the elements they found the most challenging, rather than setting whole-class worksheets.

Group work

Place students into groups to complete targeted activities. Alternately, give extension tasks to those who fully understood the lesson. This will stretch and challenge the most able.

When one size doesn’t fit all

Even if the majority of your class is struggling with the same topic, one approach may not necessarily benefit all. For one person an analogy or example might help. Another may understand better when they see a diagram or video. Some may want a practical task.

It can be difficult to provide this range of options at the drop of a hat when you discover that your class simply doesn’t understand fractions. So what do we you?

If a lesson flops, park it and prep it with a different approach for another day. There’s no point continuing if it’s not working. As you prepare, consider how you can give information in different formats.

“If a lesson flops, park it and prep it with a different approach for another day

In your English lesson, could you watch a performance of the text you’re studying? Can you give students a copy of the text that they can follow along with as you read it out loud?

This way, children have now ‘received’ your base text in a number of different ways.

In science, could you support diagrams with a video and then follow this with a practical task? This allows pupils to experience a topic they are struggling with via a number of different methods. Hopefully one of them will click.

Can you physically explore the maths you’re studying through blocks, counters or shapes before you look at them on a page?

You probably utilise many of these methods already, and not every lesson requires this range of planning and activities. However, it’s good to have ideas up your sleeve when you’re teaching harder-to-grasp topics to ensure pupils have a full and deep understanding. These tricky areas might change every year, of course, depending on your cohort.

Getting the most from adaptive teaching

Of course, adaptive teaching, like any approach, is imperfect. Knowing the potential issues can help you to mitigate them.

If you want children to honestly assess their level of understanding, they need to know that to not understand something is OK. Reiterate that learning is a process and that people have different strengths in different subjects.

Make sure that your classroom is a kind, encouraging place to be and that you acknowledge strengths and weaknesses, rather than criticise them.

This may sound obvious, but with the pressures of class sizes, behaviour and workload all crashing together, so often a classroom can become a place of pressure and stress, for students as much as the teacher.

As a parent, I can attest to the transformation my daughter underwent when she spent time with a teacher who constantly encouraged her to ask for help if she was struggling.

“Adaptive teaching, like any approach, is imperfect”

For adaptive teaching to work well you need to really know your students. with class sizes often exceeding 30, this is a genuine challenge for primary teachers. However, adaptive teaching should also help with this, since it takes time to get a snapshot of each student’s level of understanding.

If, for example, you opt to use the RAG rating approach, you should start to see patterns forming. This will allow you to act accordingly.

Retrieval practice

While immediately revisiting work that has been hard for students sounds like a great plan initially, research has shown that spacing content leads to better long-term recall and understanding.

If you allow students to almost forget content, and then revisit it, students will exert more effort in retrieving the memory. This helps to cement new ideas more successfully in the minds of learners. In the classroom, this means discovering what students have not fully grasped, but waiting a few weeks after the initial lesson before you go over it again.

While some criticise differentiation for capping the ambitions of so-called ‘weak’ learners, could it be said that if adaptive teaching aims to get all students to the same level, we’re failing to push our very best learners?

As with all approaches to teaching, a mixed economy is so often the best approach. Adaptive for all, with differentiation for the top, might be the best way to utilise this ambitious approach to teaching.

Hannah Day is a teacher in the West Midlands with a specialism in art and design. Read about five more adaptive teaching strategies to try.

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