3 things to do instead of three-way differentiation

Differentiating by ability stops pupils from accessing the full curriculum, so try these tips instead, writes Amber Field

Many paths: why three-way differentiation is flawed – and what to do instead

I’m on PPA listening to the planning for another year group's fraction lesson. The teacher decides on a lesson plan using pizza toppings as concrete representations.

The children are grouped prior to the lesson into lower ability (LA), middle ability (MA) and higher ability (HA), with the task adapted based on these divisions. The LAs have to split their toppings into halves, MAs into quarters and the HAs into eighths, despite all the groups working towards the same intended learning objective. 


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Why can’t all children divide their toppings into eighths? Some children may be quicker, yes, but all children could access the "harder" task given they all have the ability to count. 

I’m sure the motivation for this sort of differentiated task split three ways comes from a good place, but is spending a long time planning engaging lessons with three versions of an activity an effective use of time? No.

And who is actually benefiting? Knowledge and skills required in one year are relied on and built on in the next year. If children are being exposed to only some of the content that their peers with a richer academic diet, the gap between them will only get bigger.

Put it this way: when it comes to Year 6 and Sats, where are the three-way differentiated papers?

Given all this, teachers should ditch differential learning and take a smarter approach to help keep pupils' learning moving towards the same goal.

1. Identify the child’s barrier and differentiate from there

Determine the specific barrier for a child who is finding a subject or unit of work tricky and scaffold the learning from there.

For example, if a child lacks writing skills, consider how you can release that pressure when the learning intention doesn’t require it.

2. Keep up, not catch up

“I taught them long division a month ago. How have they forgotten already?”

A method that supports children in keeping up rather than having to catch up is to include short pockets of pacey whole-class revision in your timetable, such as maths meetings a few times a week. 

Other ways to support children in keeping up could be through interventions based on the gaps you identify or the hurdles you know they may face. 

These interventions could involve pre-teaching learners the vocabulary they will need in the upcoming lesson or pre-teaching some of the subject knowledge that is about to be covered so that they have a head start.

3. What’s the rush?

I’d strongly recommend that no content is rushed, especially when students are at the early stages of their learning – ie, conscious incompetence/competence.

Too often, lessons require a written outcome where children are told to apply what they have learned despite sometimes only been shown or told for the first time during that lesson.

This is understandable – I am well aware, as a busy teacher trying to cram everything in myself, that time is rarely our ally. But children need time to process new learning. If not, and learning is rushed, children can be left on the back foot when relying on the knowledge or skills in other units or subjects for years to come. 

So, once in a while, keep their books put away and ditch the written outcome. Let’s slow down and give children the chance to explore, manipulate and discuss. 

Amber Field teaches at St Paul's Primary School in Paulsgrove, Hampshire

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