Differentiation in the Classroom: Personalising Learning

Differentiation in the Classroom: Personalising Learning

Differentiation is a term which is bandied around without much thought being given to the specific meaning of the concept. During their training period, aspiring teachers are implored to differentiate without being given clear guidance on what this means in practice. Equally, observations of experienced teachers include criteria connected to differentiation and personalising learning. These boxes are frequently ticked or left unticked through a haze of ambiguity over what actually constitutes differentiation in the classroom.

So, let us begin by nailing down an unnecessarily troublesome term. Differentiation in the classroom means anything which a teacher does which helps in personalising learning. For example, providing sentence starters is differentiation. This is because it helps students who struggle with extended writing to begin their work.

Similarly, using super-extension questions based around philosophical concepts is differentiation. This is because it helps to stretch and challenge the thinking of more-able students who finish their work before the rest of the class.

There is no need for us to continue with a vague, ambiguous understanding of differentiation in the classroom. It can simply be defined as anything the teacher does which helps in personalising the learning.

Why use differentiation in the classroom? Why is personalising learning important?

The purpose of differentiation is both philosophical and practical. In the former sense, it provides teachers with a means by which to ensure their classroom is equitable. By personalising the learning for different groups of pupils or for individual students, teachers can ensure they fulfil their duty to help all learners make significant progress.

In practical sense, differentiation presents us with a range of strategies, activities and techniques which allow us to secure the best progress possible for all the students in a group – whether that group is mixed-ability or not.

As such, differentiation in the classroom and personalising learning are both ethically sound and hugely practically useful.

Why does differentiation and personalising learning work for all groups?

In any set of individuals there will be variation. Statistically, this variation is likely to be distributed in the shape of a bell curve. That is, with a small number of individuals at the extremes and the majority of individuals distributed across the central section (giving the rough shape, when plotted, of a bell).

The probability applies regardless of whether the group is mixed-ability or not. For example, in a group of high-achievers studying English, we will still most likely find that a few of those high-achievers are exceptionally good at the subject, a few are pretty good and most are in between these two outlying groups.

The results of this reasoning, combined with the definition we gave of a differentiation above, leads us to a simple conclusion: any group of students will display variation and therefore all groups of students will benefit from the teacher doing different things in order to personalise the learning for the pupils in that group.

How can we break differentiation in the classroom down and make personalising learning more straightforward?

Here, analysis is our friend. By subdividing differentiation into five simple categories, we can then identify various practical measures relevant to each of these categories. The next step is simply to put these measures into practice reduce weight.

Through my own analysis I have divided differentiation in the classroom into the following categories:

– Things the teacher can do

– Things you can ask students to do or use

– Activities

– Questioning

– Words and Writing

When planning lessons, and while teaching, you can take these categories and ask yourself what you are doing in relation to each one in order to personalise the learning.

And so we have travelled from a murky and vague conception of what differentiation is to a clear, analytically-sound understanding. You can supplement this with a wide variety of practical strategies, techniques and activities by taking a look at my bestselling book: How to use Differentiation in the Classroom: The Complete Guide and my free resource The Differentiation Deviser.

Mike Gershon