Differentiation in the classroom

Personalised learning is a noble but misguided intention. In a class of
30, it is common for teachers to differentiate work in 3, 4 or 5 ways. But where did those numbers come from? I suspect it is because 30 little chairs arranged under tables seating 6, results in 5 groups.  Why not differentiate in 7 ways?  Or 10?  How about we really personalise the learning – differentiate 30 ways! This is an unnecessary burden on time and a practice that reinforces inconsistency of expectations, particularly of the perceived ‘lower ability’ children. For those children that are behind their peers, if they are not supported to keep up with age related expectations, they will be perennially behind and will never catch up. The ‘green apples’ table will still be working on number bonds to ten and will not be adding by bridging through the next multiple of 10. This further compounds any gaps between children that are behind expectations and their peers. This post is concerned with supporting children who are working below age related expectations.

Children are more alike than different in how they learn. Everyone, no matter what we are learning, requires three things: knowledge, practice, and feedback on how we’re doing. Making work easier, or setting work from younger year group objectives, will not result in those children that are behind their peers catching up. 

If children are behind their peers because they lack the required background knowledge, there are two aspects to consider – removing that barrier so that they can work at the expected standard, and finding time outside of the lesson to catch up.  Let’s take the example of bridging through ten when adding a one digit number to a two digit number.  If a child has not yet mastered number bonds to 10, they will find this task difficult and they will need to learn them quickly.  Teachers often try to ‘solve’ both of these problems by giving that child number bond work instead of bridging work.  The result? The child doesn’t experience thinking about bridging through ten when the rest of the class have.  Instead, they’ve been working on number bonds, widening the gap even further.

One of the reasons for children not learning a concept sufficiently is too little practice. We often make judgements that a child can do something based on their performance over a few lessons.  This does not mean it has stuck though and typically children need a lot more practice than we realise. If a child needs more practice than their peers, there are a couple of options. 

  • First - they continue to work on bridging through ten while others work at a greater depth.
  • Second - they are set extra homework.
  • Third - they spend 5-10 minutes here and there over the week to get a bit more practice, perhaps with a TA.

Perhaps the child does not need to do something ‘easier’; perhaps they could do with working with a teacher or TA, getting timely and incisive feedback as they work.  A guided group, working at age-related expectations with precise feedback can work wonders.  The trick is for the teacher to gradually step back so that in time, the scaffold is removed and the child works more independently.
The most common form of differentiation is the adaptation of the task.  What’s important here is that the teacher takes the task that all should be able to achieve and adapts it so that all can access it and do enough practice to sufficiently embed the concept.  In the bridging example, all children should be thinking about bridging, having listened to and joined in with the teacher’s expert modelling and explanation of how to do so.

Partially completed examples

By getting children to complete only a small part of a whole problem, we give them a way of accessing problems at the expected standard.  If we then gradually increase the amount that the child must do, eventually they will be completing problems themselves.

Minimally different examples

If a lack of fluency inhibits sufficient practice, we can make adjustments to the sequence of problems presented.  By changing only one thing at a time from one question to the next, the child can work at a quicker pace and do more practice, in turn solidifying the concept quicker.

Isolating decisions

This strategy provides the most support.  For children who are new to a particular concept, this allows them to think about the same content through the use of multiple choice questions.  Over time, children can then move on to more complex thinking.

There are some children who have a lot of catching up to do before we can even think of getting them to keep up with age-related expectations. But if they are removed from lessons to carry out this catch up work, then everything will always be new to them – they will miss seeing and hearing how children are expected to think and work. It is much better to teach precisely, and get them to regularly practise the basics that are not yet internalised in short bursts. This will help them to remain with their peers as much as possible, experiencing what they experience but having the support they need to catch up.  If we only cater for their next small step in development, we are failing them.  Instead, all children should be expected to think and work at age-related expectations.  Teachers should scaffold tasks appropriately so that all can work at that expectation and we do not have a situation where ‘that’ table are doing something completely different.

Thanks again to Nick for this post. Rising Stars has a range of maths resources, including On Track Maths that can help with intervention.


classroom, differentiation, mathematics, maths, teaching

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