The Training and Development Agency for Schools defines differentiation as ‘the process by which differences between learners are accommodated so that all pupils in a group have the best possible chance of learning’.
In recent decades, it’s become a key skill for any teacher, especially those of mixed-ability classes. But what does it really mean?
What do we mean by ‘differences between learners’?
In a large class, differences between pupils may, on the face of it, seem too numerous to be quantified. However, differentiation works on three key aspects which can be summed up as follows:
- Readiness to learn
- Learning needs
These differences may sound rather broad. Yet, by applying effective methods of differentiation, it is possible to cater for quite wide variations between learners.
Expert opinion varies when it comes to a definitive list of the methods of differentiation in the classroom. However, we believe it can fall under as many as seven categories. Let’s look at them.
Collaborative learning has many well-documented benefits. These include enabling shy pupils to participate more confidently in class. But, it’s also a useful differentiation method.
Small, mixed-ability groups allow lower achievers to take advantage of peer support. Meanwhile, higher achievers gain the opportunity to organise and voice their thoughts for the benefit of the whole group. This is known as peer modelling).
Grouping also allows you to allocate roles within the team which cater for each member’s skill set and learning needs.
In this method, it’s important to recognise some pupils can work with more advanced resources than others. Therefore, you can use multiple materials in order to approach a topic from different angles.
So, while some may require basic texts with illustrations, others can work with more advanced vocabulary and complex ideas.
Differentiation of this kind allows you to use a wide spectrum of materials to attain a single learning outcome. It’s a method that is greatly assisted by advances in technology, which is why it is becoming more prevalent.
In the traditional classroom, pupils complete activities within a single time frame, irrespective of the level of difficulty for some pupils.
The result? More advanced learners can be held back to the speed of the less able ones. Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, some may simply find it impossible to keep up.
When you use differentiation in lesson planning, you use the available time flexibly in order to meet all pupils’ needs.
There’s no need to hold back Pupils who quickly grasp core activities because their classmates need to spend more time on the fundamentals of a topic.
Instead, you can allocate more challenging extension tasks. This way, they develop a more rounded understanding of the subject matter, or can progress more quickly.
Differentiation is a technique whereby all pupils undertake the same task, but you expect and accept a variety of results.
For example, the teacher sets a task. Instead of working towards a single ‘right’ answer, pupils arrive at a personalised outcome, depending on their level of ability.
By establishing clear guidelines that apply to all, it offers an advantage in that no prior grouping is necessary.
Dialogue and support
Differentiation by dialogue is the most common type of differentiation in the classroom.
With this technique, the emphasis is on the role of the teacher. They must facilitate problem solving by identifying which pupils need detailed explanations in simple language and which pupils can engage in dialogue at a more sophisticated level.
The teacher may also employ targeted questioning to produce a range of responses and to challenge the more able pupils. Verbal support and encouragement also plays a crucial part in this technique.
Differentiation by task involves setting different tasks for pupils of different abilities.
One way to achieve this may be to produce different sets of worksheets or exercises depending on pupils’ abilities.
However, some teachers are loath to employ this method because it has social implications and involves extra planning.
An alternative method is to use a single worksheet comprised of tasks which get progressively harder.
Advanced pupils will quickly progress to the later questions whilst the less able can concentrate on grasping the essentials.
In the differentiated classroom, you assess pupils on an on-going basis rather than at the end of learning. This allows you to continuously adjust teaching, and other methods of differentiation, according to the learners’ needs.
Differentiation: a shift from teaching a subject to teaching pupils
Differentiation in the classroom is all about understanding that we are dealing with a group of diverse individuals. By adapting our teaching, we ensure all of them have access to learn.
It should be an ongoing and flexible process which profiles pupils initially, recognises progress and areas for improvement, and adjusts accordingly to ensure learning needs continue to be met. In short, it shifts the focus from teaching a subject to teaching the pupils.
How your curriculum can support differentiation
We designed our ‘Learning Means the World’ in such a way that teachers’ own professional judgment is key to its effective implementation.
By adapting teaching to meet the needs of their pupils, staff are able to take real ownership of the model. Find out more about ‘Learning Means the World’ here.