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Be all things to all pupils

How can you differentiate effectively? Mike Gershon continues his series of practical guides to the big teaching topics

How can you differentiate effectively? Mike Gershon continues his series of practical guides to the big teaching topics

Differentiation means many different things to different people.

For some, it is about personalisation. For others, it is about ensuring that all pupils can access the same work. For still others, it is about understanding and taking account of the various needs that exist in a class. I would not disagree with any of these definitions, although I do think they lack the kind of overarching clarity that can make life easier for a busy teacher.

As such, I would suggest my own definition: differentiation is whatever a teacher needs to do to ensure that all pupils make good progress, regardless of their starting point.

The benefit of defining differentiation like this is that it broadens the range of strategies, activities and techniques that can be brought under its umbrella. In turn, this means teachers have more options at their disposal. Thinking about differentiation in this way makes it easier to put it into practice.

So, with that in mind, let us look at a collection of approaches you can call on, no matter what subject or age group you are teaching.

What the teacher can do

One of the most important things you can do as a teacher is to plan which pupils will be interacting with each other during the lesson. This can take a number of forms: making seating plans; organising groups; considering the types of activities used; and changing the layout of the classroom.

Decisions about all these things should be made before the lesson begins. That way you are presenting pupils with a finished product, something they will see as the norm (or not even analyse at all) rather than as something carefully constructed by the teacher.

In terms of pupil-to-pupil interactions, it is important to ask yourself: "How will this help their learning?"

By taking this as a starting point, you can be assured that every decision you make - from where to sit certain pupils to the size and constitution of groups - will accord with your wider goal: ensuring that all pupils make good progress. The aggregation of all your small decisions will lead to big gains in learning across the board.

Having set up the classroom and planned the lesson so that it assists your pupils in their learning, the next thing to think about is explaining and exemplifying. In any class, it is likely that pupils will assimilate content and process instructions at different rates. By keeping this in mind, you can mitigate some common problems.

When explaining to your class what you want them to do, repeat yourself two or three times. On each repetition, simplify your language and add an example.

This will serve two ends. First, it will give pupils a little extra time in which to assess what is going on and what is being asked of them. Second, it will provide a number of separate entry points that pupils can use to decode and process your instructions. If they do not grasp the instructions first time round, they will have two more opportunities to do so. What is more, each of these repetitions builds on what has already been said, as well as contextualising it through the use of examples.

Let us now imagine that the lesson is up and running and pupils are working on a task. Two important techniques are open to the teacher in terms of differentiation.

First, you can stand at the front of the classroom and survey your pupils. The purpose is to identify anybody who may be struggling. Warning signs include disengagement, off-topic conversations, a look of puzzlement, finishing early and frustration. As soon as you spot a problem, you can move in and help the pupil concerned.

The second technique involves moving through the room (circulating), observing and engaging with pupils as you go. This strategy is most effective during group work tasks, as these are harder to assess from the front of the class. In addition, circulating allows you to ask pupils questions on your way through the room. This may result in you unearthing problems or difficulties that were not at first apparent but which are hampering certain pupils' progress.

Bloom's Taxonomy

Let us focus on two questioning strategies you can use to help you differentiate.

The first concerns Bloom's Taxonomy. This was put together in the 1950s and updated at the turn of the century. It divides the cognitive processes constituting classroom learning into six levels of increasing difficulty. The taxonomy runs as follows, from least to most demanding: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

When the levels were updated, the last two were swapped over. It is easiest to conceive of them as interchangeable.

When asking questions of pupils, either individually, in groups or as part of the whole class, you can use the levels of Bloom's Taxonomy as an ordering tool. For example, if a pupil is struggling with their work, you could help them to connect it to their past experience (and thus make it more accessible) by using questions based on knowledge and comprehension. Once the pupil has experienced some success through answering these, you can then move up the taxonomy and ask an application question.

Equally, you could challenge a particularly able pupil by setting them an evaluative extension question in which they have to come to a reasoned judgement about some aspect of the work. (For more help with Bloom's Taxonomy, see my free Bloom Buster resource on the TES website.)

Prompting questions

The second questioning technique involves getting pupils to ask questions. Here are some ways to make this happen:

Invite one or two to lead the class in a discussion. You may want to choose pupils who are particularly able or who are confident speakers and performers. They take on the teacher's role, asking questions of the whole class, of groups and of individuals. They manage the discussion and help the class to develop their ideas together.

Give every pupil a slip of paper and ask them to write down a question they would like answered or which they would like to ask the class. Collect and shuffle the questions. Invite a pupil to pick one at random. The class then discusses this question.

Give every pupil a slip of paper and ask them to write a question they would like answered in the next lesson or which they would like the class to discuss. Collect these at the end of the lesson and select some to pursue. At the start of the next lesson, ask the pupils whose questions have been selected to explain why they wrote them.

Invite pupils to ask you questions about the topic. If any come up that you cannot answer, explain that you and the class will investigate these further.

Put pupils in groups of four. Designate one member of each group as "the questioner". These pupils team up and develop a set of questions related to the topic. They then use these questions to stimulate discussion among their groups.

You will note that two important things are happening in each of these examples. First, pupils are being encouraged to lead the learning. This differentiates because it allows them to direct the lesson down the paths they find interesting (thus increasing motivation and engagement), and to signal to the teacher and their classmates what they do not understand or what they want to have explained again.

Second, pupils are providing the teacher with information about their learning. This can be acted on immediately or in future lessons. Either way, it gives the teacher evidence on which to base their planning and their future differentiation.

Both these points have been exemplified in the context of pupils asking questions. However, they can be applied in other contexts, too.

Open activities

Moving on to the theme of activities, we will now look at how these can be constructed to ensure that good progress is made by all pupils. Three particular activity types will be considered: open activities, stepped activities and activities in which pupils have choices.

In open activities, the teacher sets the guidelines and pupils decide how they will go about meeting these. Here are some examples:

"Here is a list of the things you must do. It is up to you how you go about doing them. The only rule is that you must be able to demonstrate your work to me."

Give pupils a question or statement and ask them to respond in any way they see fit (you may want to provide some ideas in case they get stuck).

Tell pupils where they should be at the end of the lesson and invite them to work out their own way of getting there (you will need to provide support to the least able).

Clearly, such activities are not always appropriate. There are many times when closed activities are either preferable or necessary. However, including a range of open activities in a programme of study has a positive effect on pupil engagement and progress.

Stepping it up

Let us imagine that you are planning a lesson. How are you going to ensure that all pupils are stretched and challenged throughout the session? One easy way to do this is through stepped activities. These are tasks that contain a series of separate elements, with the difficulty level raised each time. Here is an example:

Topic: Rainforests

Part 1: Write a letter to a friend explaining what rainforests are and where they are found.

Part 2: Draw a diagram showing how rainforests develop. Label your diagram and write an explanation next to it.

Part 3: Analyse Source B. How does the source relate to what you know about rainforests? What is the purpose of the source? What does the source not tell you?

Part 4: Create a table outlining three arguments in favour of deforestation and three arguments against deforestation.

Part 5: How might you create and police a successful system of regulation for the protection of Brazilian rainforests, given the limited resources available to the government (listed in Source C) and the previous attempts which have failed (explained in Source D)?

Each part of the activity is a little harder than the preceding one. This means that all pupils will be challenged throughout the task (and will, in turn, make progress). Those who are skilled in the subject will be able to reach and complete parts four and five. Those who are less skilled may instead get to part three.

Both sets of pupils will be stretched by the task and neither will suffer the frustrations associated with finding the work too easy to be a challenge or too difficult to access.

Freedom of choice

Finally, we come to activities where pupils have choices. You will have seen that this theme runs throughout this section and is integral to both open and stepped activities.

Here are three more ways to ensure that pupils have choices:

Give pupils a range of options. For example, present a statement connected to the lesson followed by a list of response types (essay, cartoon strip, poem, poster advertising the answer, speech and so on). Pupils then decide how they will respond.

Ask pupils to make a choice. For example, present them with five possible tasks connected to the lesson topic and ask them to choose two to complete over a set period of time. This is different from the previous method because the teacher specifies a range of tasks rather than a single task with different possible ways of responding.

Create a range of resources through which pupils can access the learning and invite them to select which ones they will use. For example, you might develop five case studies of varying complexity that all centre on the lesson topic. Pupils can then select from these and answer a series of general questions or complete a series of general tasks.

A thoughtful approach

We have only scratched the surface of differentiation in this article. For more ideas, take a look at my free teaching resources on the TES website, the Differentiation Deviser and the Challenge Toolkit. Also, watch out for my e-book on the topic, due to be published in early 2013.

What is apparent from this brief foray into the subject is that differentiation is not about producing a plethora of worksheets for every class you teach. Rather, it concerns the cultivation of a mentality in which the teacher is asking themselves at every stage of the teaching process (planning, teaching and marking): what can I do and what can I facilitate that will help and encourage all pupils to make good progress?

Thinking in such a way results in a pedagogy that is imbued with personalisation, is focused on all pupils at all times and takes account of the fact that in any class pupils will learn at different speeds, at different times and in different ways.

Mike Gershon is an author and sociology teacher at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds. His free teaching resources can be downloaded from the TES website at


Ensure these things are in your classroom to help with differentiation:

1) Dictionaries.

2) Thesauri.

3) Model answers.

4) Keyword displays.

5) A list of command words connected to Bloom's Taxonomy.

6) A variety of books connected to your subject.

7) Computers (if possible).

8) Scrap paper (on which pupils can plan and practise).

9) A box in which pupils can leave notes indicating what they do not understand or what they are having trouble with.

10) Laminated newspaper or website articles.


Five classroom rules that will help all pupils to make good progress:

1) If you are stuck, ask your partner. If they cannot help, ask the teacher.

2) If you finish early, ask for a challenge.

3) Mistakes are good: we learn from them.

4) If you think you do not know, have a go.

5) Always push yourself to improve.

Five ways to challenge high-ability pupils:

1) Set extension tasks based around evaluation and creation keywords.

2) Ask them to teach other pupils when they have finished their own work.

3) Get them to prepare and teach a part of the lesson.

4) Give them laminated newspaper or website articles to read and summarise.

5) Ask them to come up with a research question connected to the topic and to pursue this over the coming weeks.

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