Doing Differentiation? Right?

“What is this 2005- High expectations and scaffolding.” This one comment to a tweet has led me to write this blog.

When asking what is differentiation you will get similar responses.

“Teach to the top and scaffold down.”

“We set the same tasks for all and provide scaffolds to help all reach the expected outcomes.”

“We have high expectations of all…”

So… you have all heard these phrases, probably uttered them before, mentioned them in a line management meeting/interview/tweet etc but what DO THEY MEAN?

We ALL know that differentiation is as old as teaching itself right? It is simply anything we do to ensure our students learn. So why do lots of us actually struggle with the physical, practical, day to day differentiation then? So much so, that so many individuals have thrown the bathwater out with the toys…

“We don’t do differentiation.”

“Differentiation does not work…” and so on.

I have written about differentiation loads on my toolkit, and here on my blog, I cringe at some of the things I used to ‘know.’ But, let me boil differentiation down to a few key must dos…But before I do that, lets understand the difference between differentiation and scaffolding. Both fulfil the ultimate aim of moving a student from where they were to where they need to be. In a nutshell, differentiation is about personalising instruction and delivery to meet the needs to the learner whereas scaffolding is chunking instructions, tasks and learning to make it achievable.

Ok, now that’s clear(!), lets look at exactly how one can effectively differentiate:

  • Firstly, quality first planning precedes quality first teaching, so we need to know our students, not just students. This means, do we understand where our students are, what their difficulties are, what their strengths are, if not…get to know. Do you know what their pupil profile is telling us, what their EHCP details, what their diagnosis entails? If not, what can you do about it… my top tip would be to speak your SENDCO…
  • Next, what are you teaching, what do you want/need your students to learn and by when? What are you expecting them to have done by the end of your teaching? If you set in your school, are you editing your schemes of work, which is applicable for the whole year group down to your individual class(es)? How? Do you know what you can/must/should cut out/emphasise and so on. Can you? My top tip would be to speak to your Head of Department. Talk, engage in what skills/knowledge are needed, are the building blocks and what can be ‘sacrificed’ to enable those building blocks to be as secure as possible.
  • Once you’re in the classroom, ensure that you show, that all of your students can learn, think pygmalion effect. My top tip would be to read this blog.
  • Now…organise your classroom, the physical design, seating locations and plans are a vital prerequisite to effective learning. My top tip would be to use a system like ClassCharts so you can keep data/track.
  • Now… start small, start with building up to success, what do your students need to do to feel successful? What are the activities you are want your students to complete? How will you know they have completed that work? My top tip would be to gather some student voice, ask students what they struggle most with in your subject?
  • Furthermore, start to think hard, (exactly what you want your students to do…) about the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), (read this rebuttal to the use of ZPD by D. Didua here too, for balance.) Essentially, however, I am asking what is the ‘maximum output’ you want your students to achieve. How will you know they have worked hard. NOT tried their best. Please do remember, this is where the word differentiation starts getting ‘hate.’ Because, people think getting students to work to their maximum output means you need to plan 30 individual lessons. You don’t!
  • Remember if a student struggles with writing, then we need to help with the art and craft of writing, if we can provide some assistive technology for example, and it will enable the writing not to be a barrier, then let’s provide it and not be aggrieved by a student working ‘differently’ to others. That is differentiation. We can’t just insist and expect all of our students to do exactly the same as others, ok, lets go past equality and equity phrasing and move to justice. What is a just delivery in this lesson for my students. This is tougher, harder, more time consuming, but it is necessary, think equality act, think SEND Code of Practice. Scaffolding might be, providing sentence starters, or writing frames. Both are useful, however, scaffolds eventually come down, differentiation is more longer term/permanent?
  • Back to ‘maximum output’… what does it look like for your expected outcome(s), how will your students be able to achieve. Now, this is where you can do lots… these are endless, usual, classroom activities/strategies/applications… Is that why some of us struggle more with this, as we are still honing our teaching skills?
  • I could give you ways to differentiate here, but essentially we need to understand the mechanics of teaching; think, dual coding, anchoring effect, retrieval, think, rosenshine, think, cognitive load theory. All of these methodologies are ways to differentiate and scaffold, as they are ways to teach, so teaching is the main game here.
  • Read your students exercise books regularly, I am not asking you to mark pointlessly, I am just saying read their books, see what work they are completing.
  • Question, talk, speak, and remember that the way you say what you need to say, when you say it, what you don’t say, is also a form of differentiation.
  • Let them ‘sweat.’ Don’t swoop in straight away, let them think hard, and ensure that when they need help, they can articulate what they need help with, then your scaffolding technique(s) will help overcome that. My top tip is to get them to ask for help by saying, ‘I need help with…’
  • It is vital that we remove the idea that differentiation is doing less, or simply just doing different work that requires different (usually lower) levels. Lets ban some, most, all, must, should, could. Instead lets get all of our students being shown, through effective teaching and learning methods how to learn what they have to learn.
  • Also, I don’t care if is 2005 or 2022, simply having the highest expectations of students is an abstract concept, you still need the physical encapsulation of that, because with the best will in the world, just your expectations won’t enable all students to learn, always.

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