Don’t limit your students: try this approach and provide everyone the support they need to reach the top

A photo looking down a spiral staircase with people climbing up

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Use these easy-to-implement strategies to help all of your learners climb as high as they can

Differentiation is one of the most sought-after skills in teaching. Everyone wants to differentiate for their learners, but there are multiple (often conflicting) ideas of what it should look like. Ultimately, teachers tend to be bound by how their senior leadership team think differentiation should look. I know I’ve been challenged in lesson observations because my model for differentiation was different from my observers, and not all teachers have the experience or confidence to challenge this.

‘High-quality teaching that is differentiated and personalised will meet the individual needs of the majority of children and young people,’ states the SEND code of practice (2015); it’s clear that teachers don’t argue about the need to differentiate to meet the needs of their learners, but do disagree about what it looks like in practice.

My approach has gained popularity following a change of Ofsted inspection framework which switched the focus of inspections to the curriculum. I’ve always had high expectations of my learners and the dated approach of top-middle-bottom differentiation conflicts with this. In this model, the students’ outcomes are chosen by, and maybe even limited by, the teacher. I’ve always favoured a ‘teach to the top’ model, where the teacher tries to get everyone to the same level, but provides support to those who need help to get there. There will still be occasions when the teacher might differentiate by outcome (ie, give all students the same task and support materials and let them attempt it at their level), for example when assessing students, but this won’t be the norm.

Prevailing with personal support

One of the easiest forms of support to deploy in the classroom is help from another person. This could be the teacher circulating, it could be a teaching assistant (working with a small group of students rather than an individual where possible) or even support from a peer. Effective support would guide the students to complete the activity themselves rather than telling them what to do. With a little modelling, students can support each other in the same way. I’ve also provided extra support by using specialist equipment, for example, a digital thermometer/voltmeter for learners who struggle reading the scale.

Winning with worksheets

Rather than giving learners different worksheets, consider what support you can give struggling students to complete the same worksheet. This could be a keyword sheet, access to reference materials (eg, a textbook) or something as simple as a blank results table or set of pre-prepared axes. I remember one of my first KS3 classes where some learners could spend 20 minutes drawing a results table that lacked a pair of parallel lines. With this group, I used to quietly slip a results table to those students who needed one as I described what we were going to do. A colleague had a selection in a resource bank from which learners could select their own.

Succeeding with scaffolding

One of the most useful types of support you can give is to provide a scaffold. This could be a scaffold for a process that they carry as a mnemonic, maybe for answering extended response questions, or it could be a scaffold that accompanies an activity like structure strips – these were something I that I found transformative when I discovered them. What students see in their books is a passage of writing that they completed independently, rather than another worksheet that might get lost. Not only does this provide support, save paper and glue (meaning your ration of glue sticks goes further), but structure strips will also develop self-confidence and self-esteem.

Where to start?

Differentiation doesn’t have to be like chasing after the Holy Grail – there are other quick wins for the beleaguered teacher. If your topic has links to the news, you can take materials from different news sources with different reading ages. Students who find drawing diagrams trickier can be shown a model diagram on the whiteboard or given one to stick in. Tools like Chemix will save you hours of preparation time when producing diagrams (and ensure they are drawn correctly and in proportion).

Make sure you know your students – this involves collecting assessment data from your own lessons and using information you are provided such as reading ages and prior attainment data. Remember to praise students for the things they get right and encourage them to correct mistakes they make to help develop their resilience. Finally, try to be organised yourself and stick to time-saving strategies like structure strips rather than make bespoke resources for every group of learners.