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What Does ‘Differentiation’ in the Classroom Actually Mean?

It's often maligned and misunderstood – but in fact, differentiation is simply what great teachers do, all the time, says Alex Quigley...

  • What Does ‘Differentiation’ in the Classroom Actually Mean?

Let’s start with a simple question – what do we mean, exactly, by ‘differentiation’?

I have repeatedly asked that question of groups of teachers, but seldom has it resulted in a clear definition. It seems there is little shared understanding of what effective differentiation looks and sounds like in the classroom.

It is time, I think, for us to seek out the devil in the detail of this essential skill.

Breaking it down

A handy working definition of differentiation – though still very broad – is provided by Simon Coffey, when he describes it as “A philosophy of education that recognises that pupils learn differently, that is, at different speeds but also qualitatively differently”.

We can likely agree with this, but with a classroom stuffed full of students, it’s understandable that we might sometimes struggle to manage all these various learning rates and needs.

It would be helpful if we could take the mass of complexity that is ‘differentiation’ and break it down into a set of manageable steps we can all undertake.

First, to meet the needs of our different students we must adapt the curriculum – the ‘what’ of teaching – without ever lowering our expectations.

Second, we should decide upon appropriate assessments – commonly known as differentiating by outcome.

Third, we need to refine our instruction – the ‘how’ – by responding appropriately when some of our students ‘get it’ and others don’t. 

Before we break differentiation down still further, it’s important to recognise that it has had its name blackened in many classrooms and staff rooms over recent years.

Too often, it has proven a cap on the aspirations of lower attaining students.

If we follow the path of differentiating by outcome, with the worryingly common ‘all, most, some’ model, then we could inadvertently lower the effort of some young people – and in our attempt to be fully inclusive, actually detract from their learning, limiting their potential.

Putting the bunkum to bed

Another clear issue with differentiation is its all-too-common association with a bulging teacher workload. We need to put the bed the flawed notion that we should stratify our lessons for layers of outcomes, or that we should attempt to appeal to the bunkum of ‘learning styles’, ‘multiple intelligences’ or worse.

Our lesson planning and our health may depend upon it!

Classifying differentiation, simply and straightforwardly, enables us better to enact it in our curriculum design, our lesson planning and our classroom instruction:

Differentiating by outcome

First, it is important that we don’t squander our precious energies by attempting some takeaway menu of activities and assume it will do the job. We needn’t provide multiple tasks; instead, we should simply choose one great outcome. Crucially, that outcome should prove challenging, flexible, open ended and meaningful.

To ensure we match how students learn, with that qualitative difference described by Coffey, we can utilise a wide range of examples and models that scaffold the learning of every student.

Differentiating by classroom support

A big part of the ‘how’ for teachers is deploying our valuable teaching assistant support in the classroom. Most of us are lucky enough to have teaching assistants to differentiate with us. We can have TAs provide expert small group instruction, or flip that model and have the teacher work with the self-same group, whilst the TA takes a lead with the class.

TAs can enact structured differentiated support, like literacy interventions and so much more.

Differentiation by support tools

We need to be careful with this one. Too easily, there can emerge an expectation for teachers to use a catalogue of different worksheets with little real effect. Some tools can be low effort but have high impact – for example, a literacy mat, a usable checklist or some well-placed exemplar models.

By encouraging students to self-select such carefully targeted tools, we not only encourage differentiation, but also empower our students to learn far beyond the reaches of the classroom.

Differentiation by grouping

We focus so much upon ability grouping in education that we can neglect too easily the subtly different groupings that already existing within our classrooms. We can be proactive with our within-class groupings to better match the task to the speed and need of the students.

There is a range of grouping styles – by similar ability, gender, personality or friendship. We can harness the competitive urge in our students, whilst taking care to keep such groupings flexible.

Differentiation by instruction

This is the subtlest but the most common differentiation we undertake in our classrooms. It happens so continuously, that it is actually hard to note when we are not doing it. It is implicit in every question we ask and the feedback that we share.

By concentrating our efforts upon making the implicit core business of questioning and feedback more explicit, we can make the detail of differentiation concrete, so that we can understand how to do it even better.


Alex Quigley is an English teacher and director of learning and research and Huntington School. His latest book, The Confident Teacher, is available now, published by Routledge. For more information, visit huntingenglish.com or follow @HuntingEnglish.

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