Back when regulator Ofsted used to grade individual lessons, an inspector told me “an outstanding lesson is personalised, a good lesson is differentiated, a requires-improvement lesson is pitched to the middle, and an inadequate lesson is pitched to the wall”.
At the time, I thought it was a bit glib. However, after several years of observing and grading lessons, as both a secondary advanced-skills teacher and as an FE curriculum leader, I see it’s undeniably true; not because I’ve been subconsciously applying that yardstick, but because it simply states the obvious.
Differentiation is just another word for effective teaching, so saying that good teaching is differentiated is tautologous. It is not a new theory, nor an extrinsic approach, nor a neat package of activities. It is the support we give to our learners in every single one of our lessons. It is the skill that defines us as teachers, guaranteeing that we can never be replaced with a virtual classroom.
To teach effectively, and hence to differentiate, requires that we know our students. Personalisation is knowing them as individuals rather than as learner profiles or target grades. That absolutely rings true with all of the outstanding teaching I’ve seen: teachers are able to exploit individual student strengths to ensure confident, rapid learning when required. They are sensitive to weaknesses, and plan greater support and more time when they know it will be necessary. They are all too aware of student context, so they soften their tone as appropriate or use praise when it will the have biggest impact.
The problem is the hangover of the 2000s, when the politruks wanted to be able to easily tick off on their checklists that differentiation was being "done", so teachers felt obliged to print up different-coloured worksheets, design multiple lessons within the lesson, and match tasks to whatever the back-of-Heat-magazine survey pronounced was each student’s "learning style". This led to the predetermination that some students would not achieve as much as others, nor experience as much challenge.
We should set out with the same high aspirations for what all of our students will learn. There should be no runner-up nor wooden-spoon objectives. Differentiation – teaching – is putting the right support in place for each learner. There may well still be different outcomes, but there should be no lack of opportunities.
Regardless of whether your students are mostly producing written or practical outcomes, modelling is indispensable. They need to have some idea of what success looks like. The differentiation is in what you do with that model and, more importantly, do you model the steps and processes to get there? In an age in which a linear PowerPoint or shallow engagement remain common proxies for learning, it can feel risky to indulge in some messy boardwork that involves you having your back to the students for stretches of time, or to find yourself talking through a demonstration for longer than planned because you uncovered an unexpected misconception. But that is differentiation.
Scaffolds are invaluable for supporting written work at all levels, but like modelling, shouldn’t be handed over passively. They are most effective when students contribute to their production, as it again means the processes and structures are being internalised. Equally, in subjects with high literacy demands and extended reading, it is much better for learners to begin by engaging with one sentence of a challenging text, doing something proactive and meaningful with it, and then building up piece by piece, rather than starting with the whole and eliciting only superficial responses.
Feedback is an area in which every choice we make is about differentiation: do we focus on individual marking or actively address common issues as a class? Do we adapt our words to be understood and unthreatening or do we model the more sophisticated language we want to see? Do we give students the opportunity to improve the same piece of work or do we want to see them apply the feedback in a different context? My answers would vary for every class that I teach, as I imagine a needle measuring the tension between challenge and support registering a different reading for each group.
The ultimate opportunity
Of course, questioning itself provides the ultimate opportunity for personalisation. When you know your students well, each question is a careful, individualised strategy: from tackling opt-out tendencies or building confidence, planning for thinking time and inclusivity, to challenging preconceptions and stretching ideas. At their very best, questions push learners to grapple for something so taxing, but also tantalisingly close, that their faces start to show physical strain.
Sadly, I think the skill of questioning was damaged last decade when anything seeming to be led by the teacher, or worse, involving that expert in the room speaking at all, was frowned upon. We’re past that era now, though, and we need to be confident in brushing away its remnants. The best teaching always has a careful strategy of questioning at its core.
We also need to put aside our nightmare of differentiation as an oil slick of paper colours, and knife-juggling five completely different activities. Instead, it is thinking about our learners, thinking about what we want them to learn and thinking of the most-effective way to make that happen. It’s teaching.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity Shine @shinetrustuk