Teaching approaches: Differentiation

From OER in Education
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Differentiation, Group Work and Assessment

Most teachers should be familiar with Black and Wiliam’s work on Assessment for Learning (AfL) and their oft-cited paper, Inside the Black Box (2001). However, it may not be apparent how assessment relates to differentiation, and in particular inclusive differentiation (that is differentiation that brings students together on tasks as opposed to segregating learners). Given the benefits of Collaboration and Group Talk for all abilities, it is not clear that the 'let them get on with it' approach to differentiation is satisfactory. This is particularly the case given that it has been pointed out (e.g. by Bob Slavin) that effective group work should be orchestrated in such a way that its objectives stretch all pupils, through ensuring the key objective is group learning, as opposed to simply 'coming up with' or being able to parrot a correct

Gifted and Talented Provision

However, as Bates and Munday (2005, p.39) point out, ‘In order to achieve a curriculum that is truly inclusive, and that motivates and stimulates our most able pupils, extension through challenge should be fully integrated into lesson planning.’. This is a view supported by Tomlinson et al. who highlight the potential whole-class benefits of provision for the gifted and talented; "What benefits the health of the regular classroom contributes to the robustness of learning for all students, including the gifted. Therefore, rich content, regular expectations for critical and creative thinking, development of meaningful products, establishing expectations for high quality and hard work are goals shared by both sets of educations." Tomlinson et al. (2004, p.5)

Strategies for Differentiation

Differentiation may often require planning to be successful. For example, using differentiated worksheets or essay scaffolds will require some forethought in creating these prompts. However, an awareness of class abilities, and the use of effective AfL to assess where students are, and what they need to do to improve their learning, should also be considered as a constant source of differentiation. In some contexts this assessment may be 'whole class' - for example the use of mini-whiteboards, or clickers; in others, it may be shared, but individual for example via the use of targeted questioning systems or peer assessment, while other sources may be individual including self-assessment.

The Category pages provide some resources for thinking about differentiation. Included in these documents is a discussion of differentation by task (varied tasks for different capabilities), or by outcome (varied targets or expectations for what is to be achieved). 'By outcome' should not be taken to mean that pupils should be left to get on with their work and lower ability pupils expected to achieve less, but rather that all pupils are working towards improving specifc aspects of their work in a targeted way.


Bates, J. and Munday, S. (2005). Able, gifted and talented. London, UK: Continuum International Publishing Group. Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (2001). ‘Inside the black box’. BERA, Final Draft. Available at: http://www.collegenet.co.uk/admin/download/inside%20the%20black%20box_23_doc.pdf [accessed 18 October 2010]. Blanchard, J. (2008). ‘Learning awareness: constructing formative assessment in the classroom, in the school and across schools’. Curriculum Journal, 19, 3, 137. Tomlinson, C. A., Reis, S. M., & National Association for Gifted Children, U.S., (2004). Differentiation for Gifted and Talented Students. London, UK: Corwin Press.

Relevant resources

Astronomy It's full of stars
Using a telescope and considering how those early astronomers may have worked
Astronomy(topic) has been practiced for centuries and doesn't require expensive equipment! This first session aims to train the whole class(ta) to use a telescope and, hopefully, to provide an opportunity to engage in some active learning(ta). The lesson includes some naked-eye observations and describes how modern technology helps scientists know where to look. You can explore the scientific method(ta) and language(ta) at this point, using targeted questioning(ta)/differentiation(ta). Students may be able to engage in an inquiry(ta)-based project around this work, perhaps for homework(ta).
Differentiation Differentiation
Developing effective techniques for differentiation by task and outcome
The small group work(ta) nature of this task allows teachers to share ideas, and attempt to conceptualise two different types of differentiation(ta), together. It also encourages teachers to share practice(i)s in differentiation. Teachers are first asked to consider differentiation ‘by task’ by thinking about self-sustaining activities which pupils could manage with little support. They are also asked to consider differentiation by outcome, and ‘hierarchies of achievement’ for particular topics. The practical nature of the task offers a concrete outcome for teachers to take away and use in their practice both day to day, and in curriculum planning(topic). The resource could be used as a prompt to start teachers off, a comparator for teachers working on similar topics, or just as an additional set of possibilities.
Learning objectives Writing Learning Objectives in Primary Science
How are learning objectives supposed to work? How can one achieve mastery in writing learning objectives?
This resource encourages teachers to think about ways to link learning objectives(ta) to the curriculum which also helps to conceptualise their teaching schemes. It also helps children to understand what they are learning and what they are aiming for. The resource brings together key ideas, looking at specific outcomes from activities, vocabulary(ta), differentiation(ta), resources and curriculum development(topic) and short term planning(ta). It could be used as a 'refresher' on ideas when planning lessons.
Shape Getting Your Formulae in Shape
Solving a card sort for perimeter, volume and area formulae
This resource provides an opportunity for some revision of shape formulae - perimeter, area, and volume. It encourages pupils to engage in effectivereasoning(ta), and group talk(ta), and could be used as an effective assessment(ta) tool. The task could be differentiated(ta), or extended for a whole class by cutting the 'formulae' lines off the bottom of each hexagon, and asking students to match these to the shapes, prior to matching the shapes to the formulae type.