Differentiation: The Magic Tool of Teaching

An article by Richard James Rogers

Illustrated by Sutthiya Lertyongphati

It was an unusually hot September morning. The year was 2005, and this was the first lecture I would receive at Bangor University’s prestigious School of Education. The topic: Differentiation.

Differentiation, in the context of education, was a totally alien concept to me before I embarked on my PGCE course. My degree was in Molecular Biology, so differentiation to me meant stem cells developing into specialized cells, such as red blood cells and nerve cells. However, this background knowledge wasn’t totally obsolete on this day, as I soon realised that educational differentiation means to specialise your teaching to suit the needs of different students, so that each student learns as much as they possibly can.

Here’s the best official definition of differentiation that I could find:

Differentiation refers to a wide variety of teaching techniques and lesson adaptations that educators use to instruct a diverse group of students, with diverse learning needs, in the same course, classroom, or learning environment. The basic idea is that the primary educational objectives—making sure all students master essential knowledge, concepts, and skills—remain the same for every student, but teachers may use different instructional methods to help students meet those expectations.

 – Courtesy of Great Schools Partnership [Online]. Available at http://edglossary.org/differentiation/ (Accessed 21st April 2017)

I would like to take this opportunity now to explain some of the best “instructional methods” I have used to enable effective differentiation to take place. I also talk about my top three techniques in this UKEdChat podcast here: 

Q & ALearning Style Tables: This is such a great activity for engaging a wide variety of learners. The idea is that you produce the same information or lesson instructions via pictures, audio, in writing or in clues that need to be solved or through some some other style, such as tablet PCs linked to online simulations. Students can go to the table that best suits their learning style or you can direct them to one. This takes some preparation but its well worth it.

Delegated Responsibility: Allocate different tasks to different groups within a class, based upon ability levels. For example, when analyzing a poem a weaker group might be asked to ‘describe the meaning’, whilst a higher ability group might be asked to ‘suggest the ways in which form and structure emphasize the meaning’.

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“An AMAZING book! Essential reading for all teachers!”

Student Teachers: This is one of my all-time favourites. In this activity, you give students responsibility for teaching part of a lesson. You’ll need to give basic instructions regarding the topic, length of time and essential points to cover. Leave the structure and delivery to them – students are nearly always incredibly creative with this!

Creative Styles: This is really easy to implement, and can be done on an individual basis (so its slightly different to the Learning Styles Tables activity). Offer students a range of ways in which to complete a task. For example, a verbal essay submitted via video; a traditional written essay; picture essay; a newspaper article and so on. 

Plenary Assessment: Get students to write down on a slip of paper the areas they are still having problems with, or any questions or queries they still have. Collect these in and use the information to plan the groupings and activities for the next lesson.schematic

Peer Enabling. This isn’t very hi-tech but it’s easy to put in place, and it’s very effective. Seat the students in mixed ability groups and get the students to decide a name for their group. Hold a group competition, perhaps using some of the activities like the ‘Poster Game’ here. Peer competition can improve performance and, in a mixed-ability class, weaker students won’t feel intimidated by the more able.

Questions. Give students some control over the lesson by getting them to write any questions they need answering as part of your starter activity. Divide them up and get students to suggest answers in their groups. This works particularly well with Science, Geography, English Literature, History and Poetry, but it can be applied to any task or text.

Economical Students. In groups, give students the opportunity to ‘buy and sell’ information, tips or ideas from you by giving them tokens or vouchers to swap for resources. They can then ‘sell’ the information on to other groups in the class. In a small class, this would also work well on an individual basis.

Glossaries. Prepare different types of word glossaries to support learning in class. This is particularly useful for ESL or bilingual students. If you can produce bilingual glossaries for individual students, then that would be a major token of help. Some can be to explain difficult words, whereas others can offer ‘wow’ words that need to be included in a piece of writing (for more able students).

projector interactiveDiscussion Statements. Provide a series of generalised discussion statements to which students can apply differing levels of knowledge. For example,  ‘If Tesla was alive today, he’d be trying to generate free electricity. Discuss’. For more specific topics, such as a historical account, use the statements to frame the entire lesson, allowing students to change their views as they gain more information.

Stepped Complexity. When writing comprehension questions, make sure you place them in order of complexity, so they become more open-ended and challenging as you go along. You could try structuring these around Bloom’s Taxonomy for extra effect. 

Assigning Roles. This is a very easy and powerful differentiation technique, which I talk about at length in this video here. Allocate tasks for any group work: leader, scribe, ideas people, speaker and so on. This makes sure everyone joins in and you can assign roles according to ability or character. In fact, roles should be assigned during all investigative group work, in order to maximise efficiency. 

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Mixed Starter. Have a PowerPoint or Prezi slide divided into four tasks. One focused on numeracy, another on words, another encouraging deeper thinking skills, one that’s really challenging (for the most able) etc.

In the Frame. Have differentiated writing frames with increasing levels of support available. Highlight the level each writing frame is aiming for – students accept this more readily and are likely to challenge themselves to the level above. Take a look at these Badger Science Assessments for some ideas. 

What’s in the Box? Have a ‘help box’ at the front of the class or place one on each table. Put tips, pictures, word glossaries or advice inside. Students use the box as and when they feel they need more help.

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Traffic Lights. This is a classic. Give students red, green and amber cards. When they are completely happy with a task, they display their green cards; when less certain the amber ones and when they are absolutely stuck, the red ones. This works well if students are encouraged to do this throughout the course of the lesson.

It Belongs to Me!: Get some envelopes and give each student personal instructions about what’s required with individual support that still allows challenge. Of course many will be the same but use their names on envelopes. This engages the students straight away!

Reverse Annotations. Try giving your annotations for a text or piece of work to students. They have to decide where they would place them and why. This provides structure for weaker students, but keeps the more able challenged. This works with diagrams and charts too. 

Class Q and AQuestionnaire: Use a mini-questionnaire to find out more about your class. Students love to tell you about themselves and you can tailor lessons or worksheets to include their hobbies and even favorite football teams. I write about this extensively here, in my guest blog post about building rapport. 

Must, Should and Could: This is an old classic. Phrase lesson goals in terms of: ‘All must complete …’, ‘Most should complete …’, and ‘Some could complete …’. This works well as an aspirational tool, because all students want to be in the elite, ‘some’ category and so tend to try harder.

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Author:

High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK).

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