Demystifying Differentiation!

Differentiation. Just mention the word and it can make us teachers bristle with anxiety and uncertainty. There is simply something about that word that can steer a clear-thinking, confident teacher into a fog of sketchiness and confusion. Teachers are often subject to instructions such as: “differentiate in your lessons”, “include differentiation in your lesson plans” or sometimes even the highly ambiguous “deliver differentiated lessons”…  And the people giving these instructions? Well, if you caught them on an honest day, they might even admit to you that they’re a little hazy themselves on exactly what they’re looking for. It’s not that we don’t all agree with the concept that children are varying in their needs or that we need to tailor our teaching accordingly; it’s just that the haze of edu-chat that surrounds “differentiation” makes us suspicious that differentiation must be something far more complicated and sophisticated than that.

In the words of Einstein, “If you can’t explain something simply then you don’t understand it well enough”, so let’s make this as simple as possible:

Differentiation means making sure you help every person in your class learn at an appropriate level of challenge.

Yup! Differentiation is just about making sure that every learner remains in their “Challenge Sweet Spot”. In other words they’re not feeling “This is too hard, I’ll never manage it!” or “This is so easy, I hardly need to try!”.  No –  when we’re in our “Challenge Sweet Spot” we’re feeling this:

“This is hard… but I think with some effort I’ll succeed.”

When a learner is in their “Challenge Sweet Spot” they are likely to be gripped by and absorbed in the task. Video Gaming is a perfect example of this phenomenon. One of the reasons video games can be so engaging – even addictive – is because they keep the player in their ‘Sweet Spot’ at all times. As the player’s skill improves, the game naturally becomes more difficult and requires a higher and higher level of aptitude. Challenge and player advance simultaneously!

So let’s have a look at 6 simple ways to keep kids in their Challenge Sweet Spot… 


Enable Table

Establish an area in your classroom that learners can access independently when they feel stumped or when they feel they’re ready for the next level of challenge. This could be a table or box filled with resources such as model answers, past pupils’ work, extra clues, key vocabulary, useful research material, illustrations of the working out process, sentence-starters, question prompts, dictionaries or thesauruses. By permanently establishing this facility in your classroom, you are encouraging learners to remain aware of whether they are in their “Challenge Sweet Spot” and to check in with this regularly.


Beat your PB!

One of the most motivational and meaningful ways to keep learners in their “Sweet Spot” is to monitor their progress against their own personal best rather than against a generic scale. Help learners to set their own goals and then try to beat them. In addition to helping learners to set targets for the content and quality of their work, it can also help to keep them focused by motivating them to beat quantity and time records. As you are circulating during independent work, agree with learners the aspirational times by which they will complete a stage of the task and note these down. Revisit the learners at exactly the agreed times to reinforce the challenge and celebrate their breakthroughs.


Deliberate Practice

Occasionally plan a lesson where there is a designated interval – perhaps just five minutes – for “deliberate practice”. This is where learners spend a short, controlled amount of time working repeatedly on a very specific skill or concept that they personally need to develop. Whether it be writing out a spelling, repeating a particular move in sport, pronouncing a tricky phrase in MfL or reciting key dates in History, the act of deliberate practice moves the learners towards a state where they can perform these tasks automatically, without even having to think hard about them. If there are groups of learners who need to practise the same skill, you might like to set up pop-up “Challenge Hot Spots” around the classroom – where pupils can go to work specifically on their area for development with classmates who have the same need.


Layers of Challenge 

Ensure that the resources you use with all pupils have layers of challenge within them. This way, every learner can move forward at a level of challenge appropriate for them and no child is capped. We should expect great things of all our learners. After all, shouldn’t every pupil have the right to access and attempt the most difficult task if they wish to?! When learners are working in groups, you can motivate high attaining pupils to immediately attempt the most challenging “layer”, by making the completion of the most difficult tasks a way for them to help their team achieve a higher “score” in a class competition.


Targeted Homework Tasks

This approach involves using a pre-assessment task to identify a learner’s specific “gap” in knowledge or skill, and then setting a homework task that helps the learner to “close” that “gap”. Simple as.

Homework often comes under criticism because when generic homework is set “for homework’s sake” it adds little value to learning. Using targeted tasks makes homework an extremely valuable differentiation tool!


Effective Circulating

This the most important and yet often the most over-looked technique for keeping learners in their Sweet Spot. It’s also one of the simplest. We can’t ascertain who needs support or stretch in a classroom if we don’t circulate, observe and seek feedback from our learners about what they’re understanding.   Talking to learners about their work so that you can support those who are struggling and challenge those who need stretching is an extremely effective way to get the right kind of assistance to the right pupil, every time.

Now it’s your turn! Please share your ideas for making sure every pupil remains CHALLENGED in the comments below!

Warm wishes,

Isabella X

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