Differentiation: You never meet the same student twice

Richard Canning

Richard Canning is a teacher and the co-founder of GroupU, a startup company committed to using technology to enable high-quality group work in lessons and teach lifelong collaboration skills to students. Prior to this, he was an assistant headteacher (director of ICT) in secondary schools and worked on whole-school improvement programmes.

Follow @RichardJCanning | Follow @GroupUTeam

Website: www.groupu.co.uk Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Different students have different needs, but how do you go about catering to these requirements? Essex-based teacher and tech-entrepreneur Richard Canning discusses how each student is unique and constantly evolving.

As teachers we’re fully aware that each child has different strengths and weaknesses. In our classrooms we employ every trick we know to try to meet each of their needs and move them forward in their understanding. We’re familiar with the term ‘differentiation’ and know that it should be included within our planning for every lesson. But we’re also aware that effective differentiation in every lesson is often a difficult task, given we need to vary our approach and resources in order to ensure that we cater for what is often a diverse group of around 30 individuals. We don’t attempt this in isolation of course; today’s teacher has a myriad of data, information sources and professional networks to help them.

The data-processing and presentation systems available to us are also more user-friendly than ever before, so we have fewer barriers to capturing, updating and drawing conclusions from the ocean of data created in schools. Coupled with this, there are now some fantastic, highly-affordable edtech products available that can significantly improve subject resources and engagement in a way that is far more appealing to young people. This is particularly the case where schools are fortunate or affluent enough to have 1:1 access to smart devices. So, today’s teacher is better informed, has more resources and greater access to support than ever before, right? Right. So, that means that the learning needs for each student in each class are being successfully addressed in every lesson, right?


"There are now some fantastic, highly-affordable edtech products available that can significantly improve subject resources and engagement in a way that is far more appealing to young people."

The initial challenge of differentiating learning for individual students remains largely unchanged. Management information systems, tablets and interactive lesson resources are critical steps forward in improving the quality of the tools the teacher has at their fingertips. Some of these edtech tools will even have ‘intelligent’ features that present different options for the student based on their previous outcomes. But despite these advances, the decision about which tool to choose, for tackling which individuals and when to employ it during either the lesson, topic or term, remains with the teacher in the same way as it did in times of chalk and slate.

The significant difference for today’s teacher however is that the expectations of OfSTED, senior leadership teams, parents and governors have risen in terms of the ability to pinpoint and quantify a child’s progress at any point during the school year. Not that this expectation is entirely unreasonable – it is, after all, the job of the teacher to understand the impact of their own lessons upon their own students – but it does become a point of contention when, against all the quantified progress, some students will still not perform as the teacher expected.

So what is missing? Are teachers simply not doing their job properly?

Not at all. Understanding what to do next and which of their students will respond to which of the vast number of potential tasks available, remains a significant challenge for individual teachers. The problem is that, in most cases, the tools and data available to teachers provide a picture that is out of date almost as soon as it is painted.

While we can rely on this picture remaining broadly accurate over time, in that each student will maintain differences between subjects (eg the student who is gifted in Art, but cannot write creatively to the same standard), it still invites an assumption that students will perform consistently when tackling all topics within a subject. When planning lessons, this assumption often leads to differentiated activities where the same students are consistently grouped together and/or provided with the same individual resources in order to move them forward.

"To compound the problem faced by the teacher when using their tools and data for effective differentiation, we have to consider the daily environmental factors affecting students’ expected progress in lessons.”

In practice however, students’ levels of understanding often vary considerably from topic to topic. This means, for example, that a student with a predicted grade of an A in one subject might have the same level of understanding as a C grade student in any given lesson. In this scenario, asking the student to tackle a differentiated task aimed at A grade students is perhaps not the right starting point. To compound the problem faced by the teacher when using their tools and data for effective differentiation, we have to consider the daily environmental factors affecting students’ expected progress in lessons, such as their health and relationships. We all know that young people develop physiologically at different rates, just as they change their preferences and social groups far more frequently than adults. Their daily, weekly and monthly development affects their ability to perform at the level expected in each lesson.

The frequent fluctuations in the personal and academic profile of each student mean that, despite all the predictions, a teacher can never rely on differentiating their lessons using a consistent picture of their class. This is because they are, at their most complex level, never the same class. To effectively identify their individual needs is a time-consuming and complex process that requires knowledge of how the students are performing in a specific topic, right at this moment. A broad background picture of expectations is useful, but on top of that the teacher needs to form their own judgement in order to achieve timely intervention and to tackle individual student needs. To do this well, teachers need to be able to spot where students need support and respond rapidly to move them all forwards in every lesson.

How can teachers possibly achieve that in every lesson?

A highly effective answer to achieving such timely intervention is to move the class into smaller, temporary groups to focus upon their current weaknesses, rather than on their expected outcome as predicted by the various tools and data. This activates each of the students in the lesson to focus upon what is currently holding them back, while making their individual needs more visible and accessible to the teacher. Once separated by similar needs, the teacher can provide accurate, personalised intervention to a larger number of students in a shorter space of time. It also enables students to develop a host of other social and learning skills that are important for their development into lifelong learners.

Delivering a successful lesson or activity, in which all the students are tackling their current obstacle to progress, is a great feeling. But providing effective differentiation takes more than a reliance on largely static data. The key to achieving it lies in understanding that a class of students is different every day and that the same individuals will not always share the same needs.

How do you cater to the needs of different students? Let us know in the comments.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

Get the best of Innovate My School, straight to your inbox.

What are you interested in?

By signing up you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

1,300+ guest writers.
ideas & stories. 
Share yours.

In order to make our website better for you, we use cookies!

Some firefox users may experience missing content, to fix this, click the shield in the top left and "disable tracking protection"