UPDATE: These two posts represent my latest think on differentiation: 

Is differentiation a zero-sum game? April 2015

Why do we overestimate the importance of differences? November 2014

Since having a good long think about differentiation some while back it doesn’t keep me up at nights nearly as much as it used to. But this is still one of my most visited posts so clearly other folks continue to be troubled. I want to set out my stall early by saying that this is yet another of those troublesome topics which is far simpler than most teachers imagine. My bottom line is that mucking about with the ‘All Most Some’ approach to differentiation by outcome is the work of the Devil of Low Expectations, and is to be shunned.

Another question which I’ve been kicking around for a while is the difference between ‘task’ and ‘outcome’. Generally, we consider differentiating by outcome as charlatanism and the preserve of those too idle to plan. Differentiating by ‘task’ is virtuous and suggests we’ve been hard at work planning what each and every one of our little lovelies will be doing at every moment in our lessons.

The truth (certainly the truth as I see it) is elsewhere altogether. At my previous school teachers were obliged to record ‘learning objectives’ at the start of each lesson. This, I considered, was only right and proper. At my new school, we talk in terms of ‘learning outcomes’. Initially, I railed against this and thought it a distinction likely to result in teachers thinking about activities rather than learning. The scales fell from my eyes when I read here that we should think about lesson planning in terms of ‘learning’ so that ‘outcome’ ensuring that there is a simply explicable point which everyone involved can nod and subscribe to. We are learning X so that we can do Y. Not only has this streamlined my planning but it’s made thinking about differentiation easier too.

You will, no doubt, be delighted to hear that there are alternatives to much of the nonsense insisted on by poorly informed school leaders: the two ways I advocate approaching differentiation are:

  1. Marking & feedback
  2. Task design

The first is fairly straight forward. Students do work, I mark it with feedback that requires them to do (or re-do) something, and then they do it. Based on my knowledge of each individual I will have a good idea of what they’re capable or and whether the work they’ve handed in demonstrates progress. I would aim to mark a class’s books regularly enough that at least 1 out of every 4 lessons is spent acting on feedback. Not only does this mean that every student in the class has a uniquely differentiated lesson plan, it also means that I don’t have to fritter away my time planning ‘activities’ (shudder!) Marking, therefore, can be an integral component of planning.

The second is a barrowload of low access (and effort), high impact tricks that I’ve cobbled together (pinched) over the past few years to force students to make choices. I see task design as being diametrically opposed to activities. Activities – or keeping students busy – is high effort, low impact. Spending time carefully crafting fireworks moments which look great but are over in minutes, or seconds, are an absolute waste of everyone’s time.

Here are some examples of the kind of easy to plan, challenging to complete tasks which should be part of every thinking teacher’s planning:

This one comes courtesy of @dockers_hoops

Students need to use their knowledge of George and Lennie, two characters from Steinbeck’s classic (and English teachers’ perennial staple) Of Mice and Men to make a decision. This task can be accessed at the level of “I’d be a bit scared of Lennie trying to stroke me” or at the level of analytical and evaluative comment. The choices they make and how they articulate them are, of course, based on their ability.

Here’s another one:

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This is a little more demanding as the characters come from different texts and also ask students to consider something outside their every day experience. But, they’re both women, both characters in Shakespeare plays and as such have enough similarities to make the question accessible.

These questions can be used as a springboard for some oracy development using thought stems or as a prompt for a piece of analytical writing, but the act of having to make and explain a choice will allow students of differing abilities to come up with different kinds of responses. If I want to increase the challenge, all I need to do is either decrease the similarity between the choices or add more items to choose from.

Here’s another idea:

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I love getting students to compare things. Not only does it crop up a lot as an assessment objective in the English curriculum but it is the single best way I know for teaching a concept. In the past I’ve tried and failed to use Venn Diagrams (NB: Venns still have their uses) to help students see the similarities and differences between things but Comparison Alley is a much more user-friendly tool. I was introduced to the idea by the prodigiously talented Darren Mead and have not looked back since. The advantage is that I’m no long trying to squash all my similarities into the tiny space between the intersecting circles of a Venn. In the example above students summon up all the stuff they know about these two poems and then organise it visually. This act of organisation helps students to focus on the relationships between the things they know and provides a  foundation for them to begin the process of analysing these comparisons.

Here’s one of my favourite Comparisons Alleys:

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This is a great way for students to analyse metaphors. They get to see the unique properties and the overlaps between the source and the target. In this case ‘thee’ and a ‘Summer’s day’. Obviously this needs some contextualising; the knowledge that a Summer’s day is a bit sweaty and plagued by wasps might not shed new and interesting on Shakespeare’s intentions in using this metaphor to describe the object of his affections. Again, the quality of students’ responses is not dependent on their ability to access the task but on the quality of what they already know and understand.

Another favourite technique for getting students to organise their knowledge in interesting ways is Six Degrees of Separation (this time purloined from Zoë Elder.) The challenge is to be able to come up with a logical sequence between one idea and another.

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This example is pretty easy as both the start and end point have been determined. Also we’re just trying to get from one concrete noun to another. This becomes much more challenging when we produce something like this:

  1. Get students to select an aspect of the topic you’ve been covering.
  2. Show them some sort of stimulus – a picture, a film, a piece of music, or whatever
  3. Get from the stimulus to their topic in 6 steps. Or, if you want to make it harder, 7. Or 13.

The point to all this is that students are not only recalling what they know about a topic, they’re also having to sequence this knowledge and having to think about cause and effect. You can easily differentiate by putting in check points which carefully selected individuals have to include such as, at step 4 must be The Battle of Hastings, or step 3 must be oxidisation. Think carefully about whether providing these check points will increase support or add challenge. You can also provide keywords which need to be included or avoided.

My last offering in this post is another gift from Darren Mead which ne calls Before Before After After. Here’s an example*;

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In this case, you could ask students to describe what they can see now. This is simple. All that’s required is identifying what’s there. Equally, you could use a written text, a diagram, a film clip or a page of statistics for this exercise.

Next, ask students to shift their focus to Before.

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What might this picture have been like if it had been taken 5 years before? Now students have having to rely on their wider knowledge and apply it to what they identified as taking place now. In the case of a story, how might it be different if it were set 5 years earlier? And then? Ask them to speculate what it might be like in 100 years time? Now they’re having to bring together all kinds of knowledge to hypothesise about possibilities and probabilities.

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The effectiveness of all of these ideas depend on the quality of questions you ask. The way we design tasks is essential if we are to allow students to work with content knowledge in increasingly complex ways. Just simply covering the course is not only ineffective, it’s irresponsible.

So, could differentiation be as simple as planning the questions being asked, giving feedback on the results and then providing time and space for the feedback to be acted on? Yes, I think it is.