Differentiation - how different does it have to look

Published: 08 October 2017

Nicola Adams is an adviser for Primary Mathematics at Herts for Learning.  In this, her first blog, she considers how differentiation or meeting the needs of all learners in the classroom is crucial but not always evident to those observing a lesson. She builds on Rachel Rayner’s blog FOMA – Fear of Maths Accountability to demonstrate how three boxes for differentiation is missing the point, and that observers must engage with the teacher before making judgements.

Picture this. Somebody is coming in to observe your maths lesson and what they see is all of the children doing the same thing. They all have access to the same manipulatives; they can all see the same working wall; they are sat in mixed-ability partners, they are playing a mathematical game… and there is conversation happening. The horror! Are they going to say that you are not challenging your more able? Are they going to ask why your lower ability children are not being supported by an adult? Are they going to say that your more able children simply don’t need the same manipulatives as the others? Just where is the differentiation?

Let’s hope not. Because what they can’t see through this snapshot observation is …

The learning sequence coming up has been carefully unpicked. You knew that some of your learners would not be fluent in regrouping 10 ones for 1 ten so you had them play a quick round of The Banker’s Game (ESSENTIALmaths) yesterday afternoon. That pre-teaching has enabled them to access the learning today with the support of a friend (that Vygotsky might think of as a more knowledgeable other).

Providing all of your children with manipulatives is a decision made because you know that some of your children will need to build so they understand the numbers they are working with. This allows you to quickly tackle any misconceptions you notice through your carefully planned questions and interventions (let’s be clear here – by intervention we mean intervening at the point of learning not weeks sitting in a small room with a TA missing Art). You would also like to challenge other children further to be able to justify and reason so they can use the same tools used to consolidate understanding to prove they are correct.

You have provided speaking frames to up-level the language for all. You have noticed that many of your children are finding it difficult to explain their calculations and reasoning so you are giving them the scaffolds to do this. You have one pupil requiring challenge in your class for whom English is not their first language. This is their way in.

You know that some children in your class just need to learn how to take turns. Social and emotional skills thrown in there too

Your game has been planned to target the mathematical concept from your learning sequence but you know that ten minutes into the game, you are going to stop, bring your more fluent calculators together to discuss their game strategy. You would like them to be able to explain their tactics, their deductions and conjectures and to reason mathematically. Meanwhile, you have re-partnered the rest of the class to give them more practise to become more fluent calculators. Your already more fluent calculators will then play each other and explain their tactics to the whole class at the end of the session.

Oh… and we haven’t mentioned the ‘Everyday Fluency’ sessions that you have been providing daily to drip feed rehearsal and flexible use of base facts and hone skills enabling all pupils the confidence to play with numbers, allowing children to access the learning fully today. Neither have we mentioned the fact that, through your assessment for learning during the lesson and from your marking, you have identified a group of children for same-day intervention (keeping up is easier than catching up after all). But that’s another conversation entirely!

So yes… on the surface… every child is doing the same activity. But how different the learning paths are for each and every one. And that is what differentiation should be – meeting the needs of that diverse group of learners in your class.

The time you have taken to go through this process is infinitely more valuable than copying and pasting that learning sequence into some nicely labelled ‘differentiated activity’ boxes for your ‘age-related’, ‘less able’ and ‘more able’ children. You haven’t put a ceiling on anybody’s learning. What you’ve done is used your professional judgement about your own unique learners to differentiate your provision to ensure that everybody has the chance to succeed and be confident in their mathematics. You believe they can do it and more with the right provision and so do they.

So like a swan that glides with seemingly no effort over water, meeting the needs of all pupils can be the legs paddling below the surface that observers can’t often see.

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Herts for Learning