If you believe some teachers, the only way to differentiate a lesson effectively is by ditching conventional classroom structures and embracing the concepts of the film Inception.
These teachers are not suggesting that you infiltrate people's minds to plant ideas, as happens in the film (even the most didactic or lazy of them would be uncomfortable with that), but that you should mimic the concept of multiple platforms of experience existing within a single moment in time.
In Inception, this takes the form of multiple layers of a dream, but for teachers this should be multiple layers of a lesson. Say you have 30 students: according to this model, you should plan 30 different lessons and run those lessons concurrently, flitting between platforms of learning to ensure that everyone's needs are fully catered for in a bespoke way.
This is impossible to achieve, and trying to do it weakens your teaching because you spread yourself too thinly. But the very fact that this insane perception exists shows how lost the meaning of differentiation is becoming, how loosely the term is understood and how damaging a lack of concrete guidance can be.
That we should differentiate in some way is not open to question. If we teach and plan to take account of the different ability levels in our class and the different ways in which students learn, it follows that we are in a better position than if we don't.
Research backs this up. The work of Geoff Petty, particularly his books Teaching Today and Evidence-Based Teaching, makes a convincing case for differentiation based on the premise that it ensures all students in a classroom have the best chance of succeeding.
The problem is in the what, how and when. Is differentiation creating different worksheets for all the students in your class? Teaching three different lessons simultaneously? Approaching a topic in a variety of ways?
Differentiation is basically any strategy, activity or technique that helps students to make progress from their given starting point. It is about variations on the same lesson, not 30 different lessons. It is also about being mindful of what you say, and how, to groups and individuals.
It is useful to break down differentiation into easy-to-use categories: activities, questioning, words and writing, things the teacher can do and things you can ask students to do.
A differentiated activity would be one in which students can make choices based on their interests and abilities. Differentiated questioning might involve asking a highly abstract question of one student and a more concrete one of another. Words and writing might encompass the provision of sentence starters for less able students and challenging more able students to include high-level keywords in their answers.
Other techniques could involve giving support to individual students, setting extension tasks for high-ability students and using simple language to explain complex ideas.
With the right guidance and understanding this can be easy. Here we present a basic framework for differentiation as a starting point, a list of "must-dos".
1. Talk to every student
One simple strategy is trying to talk to every student during the lesson. This may involve little more than checking that they understand the work. If a student is struggling, you can support them with further explanation, scaffolding or demonstration. For more able students, a one-on-one discussion allows you to pose challenging questions, suggest alternative ways of looking at the material or engage in an extended discussion.
2. Seating plans
A good seating plan will include information about your students such as whether they are gifted and talented, have special educational needs or speak English as an additional language. It will act as a reminder and a primer for anyone who covers or observes one of your lessons. Decisions about who sits where rely on you making judgements based on where students are at, how they engage and what support they require. For example, you may sit a student whose spoken English is weak next to a skilled speaker, or you may place a student who struggles conceptually near your desk so you can help them.
3. Plan your groups
When using group work in any lesson, plan the groupings to ensure that all students make the best possible progress. This might mean pairing the less with the more able, or grouping students with similar ability levels and providing each group with work aimed at their level.
4. Confidence indicators
It can be hard to identify which students most need help. Confidence indicators are a great solution. Have a student rate their understanding out of five or try whole-class techniques such as setting your classroom up into coloured areas and, at the start of a task, inviting students to go to the area that equates to how they feel: purple if they need help, blue if they feel OK but might want to ask questions and green if they are happy to work on their own.
5. Examples and modelling
Although some students will understand most of what you say immediately, others will struggle to grasp abstract points or to interpret the language used. Contextualising abstract ideas will help you to communicate with the students who need a little more support. You can also offer assistance by modelling tasks or actions before asking students to perform them. This could mean writing a paragraph that exemplifies the type of writing that you want students to complete. Modelling does not always have to come from the teacher: a good differentiation strategy involves reading out student work as an exemplar.
6. Supplement writing with pictures
Using images to supplement the text on your slides is a good way of helping all students to access the learning. Text is not immediately comprehensible to those who struggle to read or decode meaning. By including pictures on your handouts or presentation slides, you will be giving students another point of reference.
7. Tap into prior knowledge
No student will enter your classroom as a blank slate. You should take advantage of this fact when differentiating. Pre-existing understanding can shed light on complex ideas and help learners to feel more confident with new material. A good way of tapping into prior knowledge is to begin a topic by asking students to make a list of everything they already know on the subject.
8. Task mixture
Over the course of any unit of work, you should aim to include a range of different tasks. In doing this, you will ensure that your lessons have variety and be offering various ways into learning. As a result, you will be playing to the strengths of different students.
Mike Gershon is a teacher and trainer who has published widely on classroom practice. He shares his resources on TES Connect. His booklet The Differentiation Masterclass is part of the Teaching Compendium series available to members of TES Pro.
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Making a difference: how to get the best from a mixed-ability class.