The basic forms of differentiation

The Various Types of Differentiation

Good use of differentiation is vital in a curriculum for the more able. Two texts are particularly useful here:

‘Differentiation: a Practical Handbook of Classroom Strategies’, Chris Dickinson and Julie Wright (NCET, 1993)

‘Effective Learning Activities’, Chris Dickinson (Network Educational Press, 1996).

Differentiation techniques are vital for able students in any education system.

Differentiation by outcome or response

This is perhaps the most widely used of all forms of differentiation. The same material or stimulus is used for all students or, alternatively, the same tasks are set for everybody in the group. Differentiation is achieved by individuals answering at their own levels of ability so that very different outcomes result from the same task or piece of work.

This method works best where the tasks are open‑ended, so that students have the chance to make something of their personal responses. A major advantage of this form of differentiation is that students do not have to be grouped first.

However, be aware that some inspectors are a little uneasy if the process is used too much and especially where the tasks are not sufficiently open‑ended. This is because it is possible that the teacher has not thought through what he or she is doing and is simply setting the same task without a strategy behind it.

Differentiation by resource or text

This method is based upon the fact that some students are capable of working with more advanced resources than others. Students may be answering the same basic question, but using differing levels of materials upon which to base their answers. Easier texts have less prose and more illustrations, are less dense and use restricted vocabulary and concepts. For the more able, the vocabulary should be more advanced and the ideas expressed in more complex ways.

In history and geography, for instance, one can visualize a range of texts on the same basic information. In modern foreign languages, too, some students could be presented with much more detailed and complex materials.

Because of major differences in the ways in which students can work, we need to provide a wide variety of resources.

In ‘Effective Learning Activities’, Chris Dickinson advocates the tasks. This provides a flexibility that facilitates differentiation by resource.

Differentiation by task

Here a variety of tasks are provided that cover the main content area, in provide for the range of individual students in the group. One particular consideration is the starting point. More able students could start ‘further along the road’. Another important factor is the number of steps to be followed. The less able the smaller the incremental steps need to be. The more able the student the bigger the gaps can be and therefore the fewer steps that need to be incorporated into the planning.

One technique is to have different cards, worksheets or exercises for different students. Some teachers worry about the social implications of handing different paper out to different students. It is perhaps worth reflecting that much more harm can be done by fazing students with material that is beyond them, or by frustrating or boring the more able by not giving them sufficient challenge.

Another application is through group work. Some teachers use ‘rolling activities in which different stages of a project are handled by different ability‑based groups, depending upon the difficulty of the task involved.

A third technique to achieve differentiation by task involves worksheets that get progressively more difficult. The early tasks are much easier, although that is as far as some students get. The later tasks are much more difficult and are only tackled by able students who have raced through the earlier questions. Some teachers find this more acceptable, as the same sheets are given to everybody. The danger is that too much time could be wasted at the start for the more able.

Differentiation by dialogue

The most important resource for any student is not paper or electric, but human. Differentiation by dialogue places emphasis on the role of the teacher and the talking that takes place between teacher and students. There are various aspects of differentiation by dialogue.

The vocabulary and complexity of language used should vary for different students. The less able student may well require a detailed explanation in simple language. The more able pupil requires a verbal dialogue at a more sophisticated level. All students need appropriate feedback within the dialogue.

The skilled manager of the classroom prompts and encourages students with comments suitable to the ability of each student and the degree of progress being made.

Differentiation by support

This approach is linked to differentiation by dialogue, and is based upon the notion that some students need more help than others to complete the work set. The amount and degree of help provided can be differentiated to meet the needs of individual students.

This support can be provided by the teacher or by other adults. An obvious example would be the help given by a classroom assistant to a student with learning difficulties. The support could come from other students or indeed from hardware and information technology. An able pupil could be supported by an independent learning package. It is worth noting that students of all abilities deserve and need teachers’ support, but that the nature of that support should vary.

Differentiation by pace

Some students need to move forward very gradually or they become confused. Many able students are able to sustain a much quicker programme and they become frustrated if the pace is not strong enough. Even simple tasks become more difficult if they have to be achieved within a limited time.

Lesson planning can then be differentiated in terms of how many and how quickly tasks are to be completed. Urgency and greater pace are key ingredients to satisfy the needs of able students.

Differentiation by pace can be interpreted in two different ways. In linear‑based subjects such as mathematics and modern foreign languages, it could involve more able students going through a set course much more quickly, getting progressively further ahead. This is often referred to as acceleration or fast‑tracking. In other subjects, such as the humanities, this would be inappropriate. Here differentiation by pace would involve more able students working more quickly, but into enrichment or extension tasks rather than progressing onto the next unit. Clearly this second interpretation could also be applied to the linear‑based subjects.

Differentiation by content

Some students create time by their quick and successful mastery of ‘the basics’ to look at content beyond the norm. This is an important use of time, rather than the waste of doing ‘more of the same’.

Differentiation by independence or responsibility

This fits alongside some of the issues raised in differentiation by support. Peer assessment and self‑assessment are recommended as part of the teaching and learning process. It is suggested that able students are more capable of such forms of assessment.




Strategies for provision in the classroom specifically, the school or college generally, and beyond

Such strategies could include:

1.   schemes of work for all sections of all syllabuses, which provide, in a planned way, for the most able in the group by one or more methods of enrichment and/or extension;

2.  a grouping policy that centres upon the needs of individuals;

3.  use of the different forms of differentiation ‑ pace, task, dialogue, support,  outcome, resource, content, responsibility;

4.   differentiated homeworks;

5.   clubs at lunchtime or after hours, covering academic as well as other activities;

6.   a loan service of enrichment materials from the library or elsewhere;

7.   special competitions;

8.   as wide an extra‑curricular programme as can be resourced;

9.   visits from poets, writers, actors, dancers, and so on;

10.  use of the expertise and interests of able students to help deliver the curriculum;

11.  celebration of all areas of the curriculum on a regular basis;

12.  establishing a newspaper and/or subject‑based magazines;

13.  activities weeks to allow more unusual areas to be explored, and longer blocks of  time for activities;

14.  enrichment sessions during the day;

15.  mentoring by either a similarly‑talented adult or a suitably encouraging adult;

16.  cluster activities with other schools or colleges;

17.  taking advantage of LEA‑based activities, where appropriate and available;

18.  use of masterclasses at the local university;

19.  co‑operating with appropriate older groups;

20.  joint action with the local community;

21.  consideration of the enrichment activities provided by outside associations and  organizations, both subject‑based and more general.

Adapted from Effective Resources for Able and Talented Children by B

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