Some Ideas about Teaching






If a child does not learn the way you teach, then teach him the way he learns.
Chasty, cited in Chinn and Ashcroft (1999)

Differentiation is one of the least understood elements of teaching. It mystifies NQTs, and terrifies many older teachers. Therefore, before they begin to post in these sections, I invite members to do some pre-reading, which will give them the opportunity to consider a number of ‘
questions for personal reflection’, based around the issues:
- Introduction – towards a definition of ‘differentiation’
- Dimensions of ‘Differentiation’
Doing ‘Differentiation’


Position Statement
Differentiation is an entitlement, not a teaching strategy.

When I was at school, the teacher stood at the front of the class and taught. Learning was an optional extra. By contrast, the latest Ofsted observation framework for teaching and learning downsizes the role of teaching, and emphasises rather the pupils’ learning – their response, progress and achievement. One of the key lesson-components evaluated – a ‘process’ element within that learning – is ‘differentiation’. In a world where all pupils’ learning is being assessed, and the teacher’s ability to get all pupils to learn is being evaluated, teachers are obliged to make sure that EVERY pupil learns as much as possible.

Differentiation is the right of each pupil to be taught in a way specifically tailored to their individual learning needs. The process of differentiation, consequently, is the adjustment of the teaching process to meet the differing learning needs of the pupils, and it involves every teacher having sufficient appropriate knowledge of the pupils, PLUS the ability to plan and deliver suitable lessons effectively, so as to help all pupils individually to maximise their learning, whatever their individual situation.

Differentiation is NOT:

a)   Writing 30 different lesson plans.

b )  Saying that differentiation is not necessary because the pupils are setted.

c)   Teaching at a slow pace so that everyone can keep up.

d)   Abandoning whole-class teaching, setting a task, and then letting pupils/groups work at their own pace through a worksheet.

e)   Expecting some students to do better than others and calling it ‘differentiation by outcome’.

f)    Humiliating the slow learners by drawing attention to their limitations.

g)   Allowing less able learners to copy or draw.

h)   Making more advanced learners do extension assignments after completing their "regular" work ("regular work, plus" inevitably seems punitive to pupils).

Teaching cannot be good without differentiation. All good teachers differentiate – even if they only do so intuitively.
And a modern teacher should consciously differentiate every lesson. Since all pupils are different – there will NEVER be a lesson where the teacher will not have to make adjustments to differentiate the lesson to meet individual pupil’s individual needs.

It is interesting and relevant to see the Ofsted assessment criteria relating to differentiation:

2 -  Activities and demands are matched sensitively to pupils' needs.

3 -  Individual needs are well catered for. Staff understand the next steps pupils need to take in their learning and provide a wide range of activities to help them learn.

4 -  The school provides successfully for pupils who do not respond well to school or who have difficulties in learning.

5 -  Because of limited tuning to individuals' needs, some pupils get little from lessons.

6 -  Little or no account is taken of what pupils already know. Groups of pupils may not be able to cope, and may disengage or misbehave.

Here we see – albeit randomly scattered – the key elements of differentiation:

a)   Knowing the prior situation of pupils – how far they have got and what their needs are;

b )  The importance of a suitable learning environment, which is geared up to respond to pupils’ needs;

c)   The appropriate application of differentiation strategies within the lessons – ‘tuning’ the activities and demands to the pupils’ needs, and understanding the next-steps-needed to move on each pupil’s learning;

d)   The importance of consistency across the department and the school, rather than isolated pockets of good practice.

It is these elements upon which I propose to focus forum-members’ attention.

Differentiation questions and issues
Contributors might wish to comment upon any of the following:
1) Identifying the need - differentiation for what?
Differentiation is not an end in itself – it is a means to an end: the pupils’ learning. So there is no point in planning a differentiated lesson until we know what are the different needs and problems for which we are differentiating. The focus of this question is that differentiation is ‘differentiation FOR…’
It is for contributions about identifying the different needs, and the scope of the pedagogic problem, and the kinds of issues which contributors might address here include:

•    What are the different needs that we need to differentiate for?

•    What are the different aspects of students' readiness, skill levels, or interests that we need to attend to?

•    What strategies/tests can you/do you use to discover what different pupils’ different learning needs are? Can you think of any other/better ways?

•    How do you discover/communicate information about these needs in your school, and how successfully? Could you think of a better way to do this?

•    What different kinds of pupils are involved, and what problems do they face?

2) Creating the climate for differentiation – how do you make your classroom a learning environment that enables differentiated learning?
Education is not just about teaching strategies applied within a one-hour lesson. The success of a lesson is just as much determined by the underlying physical, organisational and philosophical climate of the school and your classroom.
The focus of this question is is ‘laying appropriate foundations’, and the kinds of issues which contributors might address include:

•    What are the key components of diff learning?

•    How does classroom climate support differentiation?

•    Should I make changes in the externalities – classroom organisation?

•    What role does student choice play in differentiation?

•    Does differentiation require any changes in overall syllabus?

•    What is the relationship between progression and differentiation?

•    Might whole-school ethos affect our approach to differentiation?

3) From theory to practice – sharing examples of good practice of differentiation strategies that you have seen, planned or used.
How does a teacher accommodate for different learning needs in the (often fraught) normal class lesson? Has anyone an example of what works (or what does not work) to share?
The focus of this question is ‘planning a differentiated lesson’, and the kinds of issues which contributors might address include:

•    Are there ways to make differentiation a seamless part of classroom learning?

•    How does the strategy support differentiated approaches?

•    What are some of the key facets of the strategy?

•    What will be the learning outcomes for your students?

•    When and how does the teacher decide on tasks for groups in differentiation?

•    Would the strategy fit within your "toolbox" of instructional techniques?

•    How could you begin to use the instructional strategy within a differentiated unit?

•    What about assessment in a differentiated classroom?

Dissemination – how might one introduce differentiated teaching practices into a department/school?
A differentiation ethos needs to be introduced into school, and its introduction needs to be agreed, planned and steered.
The focus of this question is 'Planning for improvement', and the kinds of issues contributors might address include:

•    What factors inhibit and foster teachers’ implementation of differentiation?

•    How might the introduction of a 'differentiation ethos' be affected by the whole-school ethos of the institution?

Posted on: Mar 2 2004, 12:23 AM



Identifying the need - differentiation for what?
Differentiation is not an end in itself – it is a means to an end: the pupils’ learning. So there is no point in planning a differentiated lesson until we know what are the different needs and problems for which we are differentiating.

Further to Dan's knowledgeable post:

Beginning ‘where the children are at’ is surely the key to good teaching. ‘Beginning where they are at and moving them on’ was the first principle of teaching I was taught in my first PGCE lecture, and it has remained my first principle ever since.

Beginning ‘where the children are at’, surely, is also the first principle of differentiation?

Ability Banding
In the academic classroom, I would think that academic ability is the first issue to be considered. Within the mixed ability classroom, this is automatic, but I would suggest that it is essential even within the ‘setted’ teaching group. A year-group accurately divided into four ability bands will still have pupils at least one full standard deviation apart in ability, and probably two standard deviations in the top and bottom bands. As a result, many teachers will differentiate lessons – as per the QCA KS3 Scheme of Work – for ‘most pupils’ in the class, but, then also, those pupils who ‘will make less progress’, and those who ‘will progress further’. This is an essential, that both lesson content and teaching strategies are planned with regard to the needs of those who will not ‘catch on’ so quickly, and those who will find the work too simple.
Nowadays, all schools have a wealth of standardised assessment information available which measures either attainment (eg SATs) or ability (CATs), many will keep this up-to-date with recorded assessment data (eg Yr7 and Yr8 tests, GOAL tests etc.), and all but the sloppiest will have these centrally logged and readily available to staff – the problem is not having the means to find out which children fall into which attainment/ability category, but in getting staff to access the data and USE it appropriately in devising their lessons. I am sure that much of the assessment data handed out to staff is discarded immediately with little more than a cursory glance, and I think there are few teachers who consciously consider who are the more-, average- and less-able pupils before planning individual lessons.

Special Needs
Having planned for varying absolute academic ability, my next concern would be to plan for special educational need. Every school by law has to have IEPs for SN children on levels SA+5 and SA+, and many will have IEPs for every child on the SN register. I must say that, after years of trying, I have stopped giving out IEPs to teachers because I am sure that few, if any, were even read properly, never mind used to differentiate lessons – instead, my SN department has moved to a system of ‘Group Education Plans’ which identify, in grid form, the SNs for all the pupils in each class. Staff are encouraged to sellotape this grid to their classlist, and to consult it before planning each lesson; the formal school lesson plan has a ‘differentiation’ box which requires staff to identify each SN pupil and to suggest how they intend to differentiate for the need of each SN child in the class. How much this happens beyond formally-observed lessons is questionable, but it should happen for EVERY lesson.
The quality of this element of differentiable need, of course, depends upon the quality of your SN department. I have said this elsewhere, but any SN department worth its salt should be telling you, not only which children are MLD, SpLD (dyslexic, dyspraxic), autistic-spectrum, ADHD, EBD etc., but also which have phonological and/or visuo-spatial limitations, (auditory and/or visual) working memory problems et al., which give insight into their cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Of course, there will be the normal spectrum of other SNs, such as colour-blindness, hearing deficits, epilepsy etc. For all of these SNs the teacher should differentiate intentionally and as a matter of course. Some of these might be very simply solved (eg a child who is deaf or blind on the left side should sit on the teacher’s right). Others might need specialised knowledge or more significant organisation or pedagogic adjustment.
At the other end of the spectrum, but just as validly a special need, of course, are the Gifted and Talented pupils who may well not fall simply into the ‘clever’ bracket, but may have specific abilities and needs for which you ought to be catering. Again, the quality of the school’s G&T register will be critical in this respect as you seek to introduce into your lessons elements which will maximise these children’s learning.

Other issues
Other issues which teachers are increasingly expected to cater for in their planning include:
- prior learning.
- ‘learning style’ – auditory, visual and kinaesthetic. (To be honest, I am not so sure about the reliability of the many different rule-of-thumb tests by which schools assess this, and I suspect that pupils’ ‘learning preferences’ may well change from moment to moment.)
- cultural issues, race, faith and social class.
- gender differences might require adaptation of some lessons.
- personal issues – self-confidence, family situation, personal interests etc.
There are no tests that can tell you this sort of thing – for all these, it really is a case of ‘teacher, know thy pupils’, and of having the insight and sensitivity to adjust the lessons accordingly.

Why bother?
It is my personal belief that this is the next frontier for teaching, and that it is essential if we are to raise achievement. At the moment I am sure that there is a lot of instinctive differentiation going on in lessons – this being that teachers, in their preparation, are subconsciously realising that certain pupils in certain classes ‘will never wear’ certain teaching, and intuitively adapting their lessons accordingly. What is wrong about this kind of differentiation is that it is bound to be skewed towards the troublesome pupils – simply because it is these pupils that teachers are subconsciously scared might wreck their lesson if they aren’t catered for. Yet their needs are only some among many individual needs, and – if we are to drive the pupils on academically – it is the specific academic needs which MUST be addressed as we plan our lessons.

The starting point has to be a recognition of the need to take individual learning needs into account when planning a class’s lessons.
After that – and this is why I have placed this thread as strand 1 of the differentiation seminar – teachers have to have a clear idea of individual pupil’s issues which need to be taken into account as they plan each lesson.

It is essential that this is reduced to its simplest level possible, or else it will never become automatic in a teacher’s planning – which is what we need.

Thus it is that, I would suggest, there are THREE QUESTIONS which every teacher needs to ask themselves before they start planning the lesson, and again after they have planned it, to make sure that they are properly differentiating their lesson:

1.   What is the ability range of this class, and who are the more able, the average and the slower-learning pupils for whom I need to cater?

2.   Which individuals in this class have specific identifiable SEN and/or G&T needs, and in what ways will my lesson meet their individual needs?

3.   Are there any other individual pupils who may have specific learning styles, or known cultural, gender or personal issues which may impede their ability to learn in this lesson, and does my lesson plan cater for their needs?

To this end, moreover, it is essential that every teacher compiles (if it does not exist centrally) a spreadsheet on each class, which will contain:

a.   information on pupils’ academic achievement (eg SATs) and ability (eg MidYIS).

b.   any SN or G&T information, with details of SN level, and a list of individuals’ needs and generic targets.

c.   any relevant notes about other issues which the teacher needs to remember – PSMC interests, hang-ups, etc. so that they can remind themselves of the key information before they start – and so that they can check their strategies after they finish – planning the lesson.

Posted on: Mar 14 2004, 03:12 PM



Creating the climate for differentiation – how do you make your classroom a learning environment that enables differentiated learning?
Education is not just about teaching strategies applied within a one-hour lesson. The success of a lesson is just as much determined by the underlying physical, organisational and philosophical climate of the school and your classroom.

The whole idea behind this question is ‘laying appropriate foundations’ – the idea that, if you are going to develop in your classroom differentiation which really works, you MUST get the foundations right, and differentiation cannot be simply a superficial strategy which you bolt on to satisfy the Ofsted inspectors, but an underlying principle which underpins your whole classroom climate and organisation.
It is the idea that such pre-issues as the ‘feel’ of the classroom, the way the tables are set out, where the pupils sit, the attitudes of yourself as the teacher and the reflected attitudes of your pupils, even display, can help to create an environment where meaningful planned differentiation of lessons can take place.
What we are really talking about, at this stage, is inclusive practice.

A now-defunct Inclusion website – a terribly intense and excited website on the benefits of inclusive education for all’ – argued that a inclusive classroom is:


a lot of students doing different things with people helping them, students moving from one environment to another. It's also a classroom where everybody is smiling, the students are actively engaged, and the teacher is delighted to be there. It sounds like pandemonium and looks messy.

Quite bluntly, I think this kind of rubbish is counter-productive, because it turns me off, and I’m committed to the concept! I think it muddles up inclusion/differentiation with child-centred learning, and I think it confuses one possible set of outcomes with the processes which produced it. There are plenty of classrooms all over Britain where nothing like this kind of thing takes place, but where very effective differentiation/inclusion is taking place.

Nevertheless, I think that – as you read the literature – there ARE certain underlying principles which you may need to consider:

In a differentiated classroom:
1. The teacher is fully committed to the principle

This is about your attitudes and values, and the need for ‘an inclusive ethos and culture which focuses on equity issues and challenges discrimination and disadvantage’. This goes beyond welcoming all pupils as they enter the classroom. It is about the way your pupils see you receiving the pupils who come to you – not just as a whole class, but as individuals. A concomitant part of this is that you must have high expectations for all pupils, together with an emphasis on achievements rather than ‘problems’.

2. There are structures for mutual respect

One writer stresses the need for ‘Positive action to promote good social relationships’, including ‘early intervention, a preventative focus, and consistent on issues of harassment, behaviour and attendance.’ In my classroom all pupils are REQUIRED to value the contribution of others. Everybody reads out loud, but no one comments or ‘helps’ apart from me. Attitude to answering questions is based Chris Tarrant’s ‘Millionaire’ principle – they’re only easy if you know the answer! If a student shows lack of respect for me, it is ‘part of the game’; I am paid to deal with it (and I DO!) But the unacceptable sin is lack of respect for other pupils.

3. There is a high level of student responsibility and input throughout the process.

The teacher HAS to negotiate meaningfully – even if he is particularly teacher-centred, he has to take the pupils’ position into account. KEY ISSUES here are prior learning; learning preferences and strengths; monitoring and evaluation to assess and take into account the pupils’ progress; and seeking pupils’ opinions and perspectives. Each year I ask the pupils to write a report on the work we’ve done, the teaching strategies I’ve used, and about me as a teacher – painful, but essential. Some teachers like negotiated contracts (though I’ve never used contracts, I do regularly negotiate syllabus content with the pupils and at least explain what I intend to do every lesson, and ask them if this will be OK).

4. Do you think it will have an effect on the syllabus?

I do. There will just be some topics that you leave out altogether, and others that you address in different ways. Carol Ann Tomlinson says that in the differentiated classroom: "Instruction is concept focused and principle driven." By this she means that a differentiated classroom will have a very SHP-type focus on skills not content. A "coverage-based" curriculum pressurises a teacher to make all students do the same work and acquire a certain body of information. Concept-based instruction allows teachers to deliver the skills via the most appropriate learning option, and gives students the opportunity to explore and develop the ideas, and to acquire the degree of factual content appropriate to their ability.

5. There will be an effect on classroom organisation – tables will be arranged, and pupils will be placed in the classroom, according to their individual needs (I have talked about this at greater length in the strand on Special Needs). One group of young people asked to design an inclusive classroom indicated that it would be bigger than the normal classroom – well, that would be nice but we live in a real world. My classroom can’t be bigger. Neither is a differentiated classroom necessarily about work-stations and ICT. It all depends on the pupils and the lesson I want to teach – I have some classes where many children sit alone on desks arranged in serried ranks: that is the best learning environment for them, for it gives me the greatest control. At other times we pile the desks in a corner and sit in a large circle, or work in groups. Classroom organisation has to be planned at the individual-pupil level. Display is also an area where a little planning can have a great effect – display should be designed so that it does not distract children with poor attention, but so that it does provide prompts for children with poor memory skills.

6. There will be an effect on classroom management processes

I do not believe that a differentiated classroom is necessarily mixed ability. But what I do think is that the management of learning issues need to have been pre-thought, including support, support staff and team-teaching. Ideally – though this is a whole-school issue and you cannot do it alone – this will stretch backwards into the timetable and school organisation. For some children, there should be a foundation of organised support including community involvement, inter-agency meetings and liaison with parents (the ideal model is the full-service school). In the meantime, however, the teacher can organise the elements of classroom management over which he DOES have control to ensure that the pupils have maximum opportunity to learn – even if this involves nothing more than making sure that the SpLD pupil’s laptop is fully charged, and making the disorganised pupils put away one set of materials before you move on the next stage of the lesson.

7. Finally, a differentiated classroom WILL use a wide variety of teaching strategies directed towards specific pupils’ needs, which I will explore in another post.

Posted on: Mar 20 2004, 11:16 PM





To cite this page, use:   CLARE, JOHN D. (2004/2006), 'Differentiation',  at Greenfield History Site (