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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 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 suggest that differentiation is whatever a teacher needs to do to ensure that all pupils make good progress, regardless of their starting point. This broadens the range of strategies, activities and techniques that can be brought under its umbrella, so teachers have more options at their disposal.

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 - through making seating plans; organising groups; considering the types of activities used; and changing the layout of the classroom.

These decisions should be made before the lesson begins, so you are presenting pupils with a finished product, something they will see as the norm.

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, 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, think about 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. Each time, simplify your language and add an example.

This will give pupils time to assess what is going on and what is being asked of them, and it will provide a number of separate entry points they can use to decode and process your instructions. If they do not grasp the instructions first time, they will have two more opportunities. Also, each repetition builds on what has already been said, as well as contextualising it through examples.

Once 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, 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.

Secondly, move through the room (circulating), observing and engaging with pupils as you go. This is most effective during group tasks, as these are harder to assess from the front. Circulating allows you to ask pupils questions on your way through the room, so you may unearth problems or difficulties that were not at first apparent.

Bloom's Taxonomy

I would suggest two questioning strategies to help you differentiate.

Bloom's Taxonomy divides the cognitive processes of classroom learning into six levels of increasing difficulty, from least to most demanding: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. The last two can be 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. So if a pupil is struggling with the work, you could help them to connect it to their past experience (thus making it more accessible) by using questions based on knowledge and comprehension.

Once the pupil has experienced some success through answering these, you can 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.

Prompting questions

The second questioning technique involves getting pupils to ask questions:

- Invite one or two to lead the class in a discussion. You may want to choose pupils who are particularly able or 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 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, then use them to stimulate discussion among their groups.

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

Open activities

Activities can be constructed to ensure that good progress is made by all pupils: 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 them, for example:

- 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 (provide ideas if 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).

Closed activities are often preferable or necessary, but including a range of open activities has a positive effect on pupil engagement and progress.

Stepping it up

How are you going to ensure that all pupils are stretched and challenged throughout the session? One easy way is through stepped activities, tasks that contain a series of separate elements, with the difficulty level raised each time, for 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 it not tell you?

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

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. So 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 complete parts four and five. Those who are less skilled may 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 or too difficult.

Freedom of choice

Here are three more ways to ensure activities where 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. The teacher specifies the range of tasks.

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

A thoughtful approach

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 him or herself 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?


Ensure these things are in your classroom to help with differentiation

- Dictionaries

- Thesauri

- Model answers

- Keyword displays

- A list of command words connected to Bloom's Taxonomy

- A variety of books connected to your subject

- Computers (if possible)

- Scrap paper (on which pupils can plan and practise)

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

- Laminated newspaper or website articles.

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