The Concept of Differentiation

I was asked about differentiation in advance of the meeting about Initial Teacher Training at the DfE .  I really could go on at some considerable length about the subject – so here are a few thoughts to get you started.

When I was younger it seemed a simple matter: differentiation.  You got to know the children and then you tried to match the work you were giving to them.  This could be in all sorts of ways, from different work set to differentiation by outcome.  As a creative person I tended to favour the outcome side of things, but as I continued to teach, I began to understand that what was good for a child like I had been, wasn’t necessarily good for everyone, and in particular those children with SEND.

Now that I’ve been teaching a good few years, and that I have the added advantage of a child with significant needs living in my home, I can see that the environment in which we work, the things around us that distract and confuse, are just as important.

For instance, if I want Sam to get up and get dressed for school, it helps if I put his clothes out for him.  That way I can be sure that he will get into his school uniform rather than his football kit.  (The weekends are times for him to discover why shorts in December aren’t such a good idea).

In a classroom context this might mean that I set out all the resources before the children arrive for a lesson, that the pencils are sharpened, that everyone has a ruler and no one needs to fuss.  Or it might mean that some children might be building a model robot out of specified materials, or will use particular paint brushes or instruments.  In order to help them learn I close the boundaries a little bit.  I don’t leave them stymied by the distraction of too much choice.

Some children need more support than others, but all children need to find the things that they can do on their own.  Sometimes this calls for imagination, but the moment a young man in an electric wheelchair told me that he could now dress himself, and the dignity that that had given him, was an impressive one.  Or the time my friend-who-is-a-dance-teacher told me about some work she had been doing with older young people with special needs and the helpers jumped in with their suggestions before the dancer had had a chance to make their mind up.  Giving people the opportunity, no matter what their disabilities, to make decisions for themselves, to act independently, is important; and teachers need to understand this, and look for these moments.

At first glance, these two principles might seem in opposition to each other, so teachers need to learn about balance, and how we don’t always have to teach every lesson the same way.

Balancing the needs of the individual, or of one group, against the rest is always going to be a challenge, and teachers need to have some strategies to deal with this.  Teaching a particular lesson always in one way is not the answer.  In order for teachers to get the best out of the children they teach they need to mix it up.

With that in mind, in my totally honest opinion, the DfE needs to challenge those people and organisations who claim ‘this is how you do it and only this way; Thou Shalt Not Deviate From The Way’.  This is not how teaching works.  Giving scripts to inexperienced teachers stunts their creativity and prevents them from thinking for themselves.  Sometimes, ‘rules’ need to be broken and changes made in the interests of the children we teach.  Unless they have dramatically different needs, for their sakes, sending children to another year group for some lessons because you can’t see how to include them in what you are doing in your class should be a last resort.


I’m sure there is more I could say on the subject – and there will be, in my book (out in May!).  Thanks for reading – and thanks for asking.


4 thoughts on “The Concept of Differentiation

  1. Saying scripted lessons stunt the creativity of teachers is a one-size fits all approach as well thought Nancy. I can think of many new teachers who would have welcomed something more scripted and less open early on. As for differentiation – I think it’s a case of being flexible and open as well as assessing what closes the gap and what widens it because differentiated resources are capable of doing both.

      1. While I would agree that schemes are useful, especially the teachers books, and especially in the early years, I think these are very different to scripted lessons.

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