Does differentiation always have to mean different?

A look in to the changing world of differentiation and how Teaching Standard 5 has to be looked at more closely. Also looking at the question, who do we differentiate for?

James Bullous
Mar 24 · 6 min read

As part of a recent training programme I have facilitated, I heard a highly effective teacher say “I don’t think I differentiate”. I knew this was not true as I have seen him do it effectively and knew, through many conversations and observations, he was meeting the needs of his students. So why wasn’t he able to recognise that he was differentiating? His response, to put simply, was because he didn’t print different tasks on different sheets or give individualised tasks for each attaining group. His idea was differentiation had to be different, clues in the name. This made me reflect on my own training and I wanted to share some thoughts, as if he questioned his ability, I am sure 1000’s more are.

Differentiation was first formally describe in December 1953. Although not called differentiation, or the now termed ‘differentiated instruction’ (DI), it was suggested when Educational Leadership devoted an issue to the theme “The Challenge of Individual Difference.” Since then, it has become an educational buzz word, easy cop-out for a lesson feedback (“Could you have differentiated more in that lesson?) and even a part of the great Teaching Standards, standard 5 to be exact.

To be clear, I am a massive fan of differentiation and think it is one of the most important parts of my day-to-day teaching. I think the issue lies in the way that differentiation is pushed in some schools and in some ITT courses. This misconception (IMO) embeds the idea that teachers need different ability sheets and tons of different resources to differentiate, I don’t agree with this. In fact, I think this a massive waste of teachers precious time and it pigeonholes students to early in saying you are only worth this sheet and they are worth this sheet. Don’t get me wrong, this is something I have done many times for observation lessons, but only now am I reflecting on how they students may have felt.

Instead of considering how you differentiate lessons, I ask teachers to consider how they have appropriately challenged every pupil

This simple change has enabled teachers to break the mould and give an honest answer to what differentiation should be all about, ensuring appropriate challenge for all students. This moves away from the worksheet heavy multiple sheet approach and towards an effective conversation about appropriate challenge. I believe differentiation has four fundamental pillars. These are, differentiation by:

  • Resource – this is any physical resources you may supply to scaffold or support learning. This could be a word bank, cheat sheet, structure strip, fact sheet or text book. These can be given or offered to students who are struggling with the task. Extension resources or independent practice can also be offered to students who aren’t challenged enough.
  • Support – this can be a resource but could be any mechanism you use to enable students to succeed. This includes TA’s, other pupils in appropriate grouping or your time as a teacher.
  • Task – this is where every says “you said you hate loads of different worksheets”! I am suggesting you put a cross section of questions and provide these all together on a sheet and give this to every student. This then enable you to differentiate through the other strategies and still move students on or bring them back as you see fit for appropriate challenge. This way, students are not pigeonholed but are told all can succeed. This will also help to build students self-regulation and metacognition (see this blog for more info).
  • Response – students can be asked the same question and the level of there response will be naturally differentiated based on their knowledge. If you question students effectively and elicit responses in an order that encourages deeper thinking and ensure students are challenged, you are differentiating and challenging all appropriately. I.e, ask weaker students first and dig deeper if required, then move up Blooms or SOLO taxonomy to ask effectively the same question to more able students. The same question will produce very varied responses, something I saw demonstrated expertly in a Year 1 class where the teacher questioned students on why a princess might leave her safe castle when looking in to creative writing. One student responded “she was bored”, the next “she was adventurous” and the last “she needed to collect firewood”. All differentiated responses showing appropriate challenge to the students to the same question. This teacher knew these students and when each was challenged enough to make progress and not panic (comfortable, stress, panic model).

One thing I am sure you will jump to is, “Where is differentiation by outcome?”. Personally, I don’t think this is an appropriate way to differentiate. Essentially, students will all sit the same (or similar) exams and so the outcomes (specification details) are the same. Students must recall the carbon cycle, balance chemical equations and explain the relationship between the length of a wire and resistance. The only thing that will separate them is their responses. We should be ensuring that those students give the best response they can. In order to do this we must make sure students, over time, have the appropriate resources, support and tasks to enable them to give their best response.

To this end, a potentially controversially differentiated lesson I did last week was to use @adamboxer1 SLOP sheets for all year 11 students. They then worked through these throughout the lesson, allowing conversations between neighbours, and some input from me trough whole class questioning. This meant the outcome and task was the same but I was able to differentiate by resource (A3 cheat sheets) and support (me, TA and a mixture of abilities in seating plan to allow for peer support). Anyone who came in may think no differentiation was occurring as there was no evidence, but I would argue it was.

I have tried to explain my concerns with some current practice on teaching standard 5 and differentiation in an attempt to make teachers realise that all differentiation doesn’t have to be different. This is specifically applying to differentiation for ability and obviously for physical or mental SEN this may not be the case.

Differentiation does not have to be time consuming, expensive, boring and pigeonholing. It can be done in response to the class in front of you and by using your expertise in your subject area. Just make sure all children are appropriately challenge. Differentiation is not a massive and onerous task. It is a manageable skill that is founded in knowing your students and using effective Assessment for Learning (AfL) to see where they struggle/succeed and intervene quickly to ensure sustainable progress.

Since posting this blog I have been directed toward an Ofsted article highlighting this every idea, see the image below. So why are people still so fixed on multiple different worksheets and giving kids ceilings?

My heading asked the question, who do we differentiate for? Not the observer, not the teaching fellow, not the PM manager, not the SLT and not even the Ofsted inspector. It’s for the students to make sure they are appropriately challenge at all times in your lessons.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, if you have any comments or challenges to what I have said please let me know @DrB_SciTeacher on Twitter.

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