Differentiation - ensuring all learners can access the curriculum
Differentiation is integral to the principle of inclusion – it is about ensuring that all learners can access the curriculum. However, whilst a principled intention of education, it is a complex and often confusing term. The pursuit of accommodating the differences, and resultant needs, of every learner can seem challenging and also raise concerns about how differentiation can add to a teacher’s workload.
Whilst it is about ensuring individual needs are met, approaches to differentiation can incorporate individual, small group and whole group teaching.
Teachers can differentiate the following elements of their practice:
- Content - how the learner(s) will access learning material;
- Process - activities which help the learner(s) make sense of the content;
- Assessment - methods through which the learner(s) can show, apply or extend their learning;
- Learning Environment - the layout and ethos of the learning environment.
In relation to content, key points to consider are particular learning needs that may require reasonable adjustments; but also general consideration to resources/approaches used to support access to learning and that also motivate and enthuse all learners.
Consider how you can both support and challenge learners – high expectations are top of the Ofsted inspection agenda currently!
Find out what learners already know and then use that as the starting point for all lessons; this will also enable you to tailor learning to specific individuals/groups as appropriate and adapt lessons accordingly.
Use individual objectives for lessons – what do the learners want to achieve in the lesson? This is particularly effective in revision lessons, but also to support study skills such as essay writing or project-based work.
Questioning – this is perhaps the most efficient way to differentiate learning. It is also the most responsive way to differentiate learning as it is happening in real time. Use questions to check key concepts, but also to extend learning and importantly to challenge learners towards critical thinking. Bloom’s taxonomy can be helpful here to compose questions that help the process of learning:
Consider different assessment methods – perhaps ask learners which method they would prefer to use.
Give learners choice about whether they want to work alone or collaboratively.
Use self-assessment and peer assessment – this can also link back to individual objectives set at the beginning of a lesson if used.
Use differentiated questioning to assess ongoing learning in lessons.
Consider the best layout to ensure access, but also what is most conducive for the lesson planned.
Build positive rapport with your learners so you know they know how your learning environment works, what you expect from them and most importantly that they feel safe and valued.
Differentiation is not without its difficulties. Care must be taken to avoid the potential negative consequences of differentiation; two common examples include:
- oversimplifying activities - this removes the challenge of deeper learning;
- setting up extension tasks or reducing or simplifying content – this communicates messages of potential to learners which can demotivate or frustrate them.
The term differentiation, however, seems to be on the wane, with mastery being its new replacement. Mastery is about challenging every learner and avoiding differential expectations.