Achieving effective differentiation

This article was originally posted in Headteacher Update 5/5/16.


Differentiation is accepted as part of teaching, but do we really offer true differentiation to all students, including those with SEN? Daniel Sobel says that too often we don’t. He looks here at a more nuanced and investigative approach to differentiation

Challenging classroom behaviours usually come down to two factors: the attitude of the teacher and the degree to which instruction is tailored to the individual – we of course call this differentiation.

It is my strongly held belief that if the teacher comes to class with a positive mindset, effective differentiation takes care of the rest.Look through any classroom window: the disengaged learner is easy to spot. He or she has their back to the teacher, trying to distract their class mates or they are doing their very best to go unnoticed, making movements that look like writing or pretending to read.

There is always a subtext to this story. These students may simply not be getting learning that works with their natural disposition. They are simply not able to absorb that which doesn’t play to their strengths.

What does effective differentiation look like?

Throughout my career, I have observed that the vast majority of teachers have a strong and sincere desire to differentiate, yet too often they rely on a flimsy understanding of the underlying principles. They may have gleaned ideas from the internet, attended CPD or twilight sessions which reference the topic in vague terms, but they lack the tools to implement a nuanced articulation of individualised learning.

I have seen so many sincere attempts at differentiation that I believe amount to no more than window dressing: an example I keep running into is the addition of explanatory visuals to complex task instructions, in the hope that this will penetrate language processing difficulties.

Other common examples of well-intentioned but ineffective attempts at differentiation include:

  • Increasing the size of a font, or of a worksheet itself, in the hope that the student will suddenly “get it” because it’s larger.
  • Double-spacing text, again without altering vocabulary, only to find that the student with general learning difficulties is still unable to complete the work without support.
  • Using teaching assistants to explain text, without thinking about how work could be pitched so that pupils use more independent thinking.
  • Expecting students with language processing difficulties to successfully interpret poetry because the teacher has given the student a choice of descriptive words – of equal inferential complexity – that could fit into a sentence gap.

Real differentiation is about devising and implementing strategies that scaffold the kind of nuanced support that is expected in the modern classroom. Examples of effective differentiation might include: timed learning targets; writing patterns of behaviour into support – as opposed to simply trying to squash challenging behaviours with carrot or stick; giving autism spectrum disorder or ADHD students “fiddle time” between tasks; allowing time out from learning when needed; or qualifying subject-specific vocabulary for students with short-term or working memory difficulties.

Key barriers to quality differentiation

Again from my experience, the key barriers to effective differentiation are:

  • The teacher doesn’t have enough time to make elaborate resources.
  • The teacher doesn’t know their students well enough.
  • The teacher takes the easy road in using generic “differentiated” materials, which do not meet the needs of individual students.

The biggest factor in my experience is so often that bugbear of educators everywhere: teachers are overstretched as it is, and simply don’t have the time or energy to prepare effective materials or to devote to one or two students that need help.

An example: a young teacher at an inner London school I worked with couldn’t explain why two of his students were having difficulties and he didn’t know how to go about accessing the information that could help him. He also understood that even if he were able to access relevant files or documents, he was ill-prepared to address the issues. He was frustrated that although he was trying hard to support the students by downloading resources from the internet, the challenged students were still unable to participate in his lessons and he could not afford the time to produce resources to help them.

Why most differentiation training doesn’t stick

I believe that most differentiation training is too generic and is delivered in lecture format or in abstract fashion, where the only resource is a book, which doesn’t address key barriers faced by individual students.

In-school CPD training is nearly always delivered to cohorts of teachers, within subject groups, or even generally delivered. Usually an “in the know” lecturer will stand in front of the group, brandishing a clicker, and will flick through a sophisticated PowerPoint presentation. Occasionally the delivery of information will be more dynamic, with the lecturer facilitating interaction and discussion, which will of course excite and empower teachers to incorporate new ideas.

However, these ideas and methods, sometimes brilliant for whole-class advancement, are rarely pitched towards those one or two students with specific needs.

An investigative approach

So how about a more investigative approach (as pioneered by Wendy Knott)? Why “investigative”? Well, it is about talking to teachers to identify their needs. We should encourage teachers to seek more feedback from their students in order to broaden their understanding of the difficulties they face.

How might you deliver this? After an initial “back-of-class” lesson observation, a discussion with the teacher on what has been observed can take place to delve deeper into perceived successes and difficulties that the teacher identifies.

This dialogue should centre around the ways in which a teacher’s current provision meets the needs of students experiencing difficulties, what changes can be adopted to increase both student access to the curriculum and the working knowledge a teacher could benefit from.

It is only after this meeting that a nuanced and personalised differentiation can be planned according to the needs of the SEN individuals in each class.

Going back to the example of the London teacher: during a classroom observation, it was noted that a student with autism sat with her fingers in her ears and her eyes closed during the viewing of a loud and frenetic video. When this observation was fed back to the teacher he responded with: “Oh yes, she often does that to get out of doing the work.”

It was obvious to us that the teacher had scant understanding of the traits and common behaviours associated with the autistic spectrum, and of how students with autism can often respond to sensory overload.

The teacher had misinterpreted the student’s response as bad behaviour. As a result, time was spent with the teacher addressing this and then planning ways in which their new knowledge could be put into practice to get more positive outcomes.

So what are the key tenets of an investigative approach?

Nuanced understanding

The teacher should seek a deeper, more nuanced understanding of their student as a foundational step. Usually a teacher is easily able to identify students in their class who obviously present with either challenging behaviour or lack of engagement. In many instances, a teacher will point out a student with more specific needs such as Asperger’s or dyslexia, but yet are seen to be providing them with the same resources as their peers. The process should work collaboratively with the teacher, by establishing what knowledge they do have, then supporting them with additional information. The teacher is then supported to model resources which are often immediately effective.

Applied to all lessons

Any time spent planning for specific students is valuable and scarce, so inherent to success is that all knowledge imparted and resources planned are useful not just for the SEN or gifted and talented students, but are the foundation of good practice within the general classroom setting too. Instead of coming up with new materials, teachers should be able to adapt the resources they already use.

Small groups

Rather than deliver generic advice to large groups of teachers, try working with smaller groups of identified staff who are in a great position to cascade ideas to other members of staff. By working in this way the facilitator can address case studies brought to the meeting, understand the learning that has been provided thus far, and acknowledge successes and good practice while helping to develop new methodologies with which a teacher can progress effective bespoke differentiation.

Teaching assistants

The new SEND Code of Practice encourages both teaching assistants and teachers to work collaboratively in meeting the needs of their students. No longer should a teaching assistant be used to “babysit” a student, to sit with them in a “velcroed” manner, or to give relief to the teacher by removing disruptive students from the classroom.

Instead lessons should be planned in such a way that the teaching assistant is aware of what is being taught and is proactive in the delivery of materials. By giving the teaching assistant an integral role as the lesson is planned, they become an inherent part of the teaching team, imparting their knowledge of the students as part of the discussion.

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