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Differentiation An Article to get you thinking about differentiation in teaching and learning. What is it? Why do it? How can it be most effective? Great prompts for a staff meeting discussion.

Differentiation: a way of thinking about the classroom.
Carol Ann Tomlinson

This is a Free Sample Resource
Categories: Article, Teaching & Learning, Any Subject, Junior, Secondary

Tags: Differentiation Independent Learning
What is Differentiation?
When my mother went to school, learning was differentiated by speed. You either kept up with the teacher or got hit for being too slow. Getting hit a lot meant repeating the year (at the same speed), while your quicker friends raced ahead into the next.

When I went to school, learning was differentiated by speed. You ploughed on through colour-graded workbooks. Either you kept up or you didn't. At the end of the school year you might be at gold level (the fast children). Or Grey (the slower children). Or Blue (the moderate speed children). The following year you might get a chance to pick up where you left off.

When I trained to teach, learning was differentiated by task, by outcome and by grouping. In practice this meant three levels of worksheet handed out to three ability groups. And when you didn't have the time to plan this for every lesson then an open ended task had to suffice: "How many other ways can you find to....", "How could you use this to...."

In 2013 differentiation has evolved. It's much more a way of thinking about learning than it is a production of diverse resources. Differentiation by speed, task, outcome and grouping still have their place, but they sit together with many more processes inside a coherent philosophy.

Carol Ann Tomlinson, Professor of Educational Leadership at The University of Virginia, says that differentiation is a way of thinking about the classroom. She links it to teacher beliefs which contribute to successful learning. All of these beliefs can be summarised under a practical definition of differentiation: The differences in teaching that get the most from a diverse set of learners. When we believe this and act to make it happen then more pupils can learn more. Read more about Carol Ann's views on differentiation here.

Why Differentiate?
Because all pupils deserve a teaching style that meets their learning style at least half way.

However, pupils should not have their learning delivered on a plate. Life's not like that. Flexibility, hard work, adaptation, compromise are as important in learning as the subject being taught. We and they can't always have exactly what we want.

Likewise teachers should not have their teaching delivered on a plate. Some time, but not excessive amounts, should be dedicated to expanding and enriching lessons so that more pupils have the opportunity to be more engaged, more included, and to make more progress.

Differentiation is often mis-interpreted as another initiative or yet another thing to do. It's not. Differentiation describes features of good teaching and should be integral to all educational thinking, teacher training, CPD, lesson planning and school development.

Think back to your own learning experiences - either in school or as a teacher. Do you remember a specific event when a slight change in approach would have made your experience a whole lot better? Do you also remember a time when learning felt just right: not too easy or hard; appropriate, meaningful? Why was that? What factors were in place for you?

How to Differentiate
To me, the what and why of differentiation make up about 25%. How takes the remaining 75%. Why so much? Because effective differentiation can be more about changing your beliefs to do with classroom learning than about plugging a new activity into your lessons. It's harder to change what we think than what we photocopy.

This month's Thinking Tool, Differentiation Wheel, is a typical activity that allows pupils access to a range of subject-based challenges but also lets them find their own level. Do they always choose the easy route? A route that's too difficult at the moment; or have they (like Goldilocks) the discernment to get their choices just right?

Teacher resource books will be brimming with support and extension (3 levels, see!) activities. My own monthly thinking tools do the same. But for this to really work, we need to move beyond the 3 levels to meeting individual needs. Unless you are blessed with a class of 10 or less I think this a huge challenge. So what's the solution?

Try This!
We want to differentiate appropriately for each pupil yet we are fully aware of the 24 hour limit to each day. I believe the way to make this happen is to draw on the biggest resource available in your class: your children. And to preserve a skill which sadly diminishes once they leave Reception classes. The skill is independence. I see some of the most effective self-differentiated learning from our 5-year-olds. The skill is eroded more and more until university when suddenly it's needed again. No-one's going to attend that lecture for you or turn in the essay on time. Or heat up your beans. With little sausages.

Develop your pupils as independent learners who can think about their learning, have confidence to find a task that's 'just too hard' and the wherewithal to seek help only when they really need it. In this way, classrooms will differentiate themselves, the teacher becoming the pro-active provider of diverse engaging choices, that the pupils thoughtfully select, rather than being the dispenser of expert knowledge, differentiated to 3 levels, which the pupils attempt to absorb.

Related Resources:

4 Way Thinking

Differentiation Wheel

Genius Hour



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