‘It’s differentiation Jim, but not as we know it!’

    Published: 31 August 2016

    Nicola Randall is a Primary Mathematics Adviser at Herts for Learning

    Over the past year I have worked with several schools developing a mastery approach to teaching and learning in Mathematics. The approach fits well with the new curriculum and enables both teachers and pupils’ depth of learning. From my conversations with teachers and leaders, one question that is on everyone’s mind is ‘what about differentiation?’

    Since being removed from the Ofsted Inspectors Handbook last year, it seems that differentiation has become a dirty word as ‘all pupils move broadly through the programme of study at the same pace’. At this point, I would like to draw your attention to the word broadly. This word would suggest that it is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach, as interpreted by many and in fact, if you continue to read the aims of the maths curriculum, it goes on to explain that some pupils will require consolidation whilst others deepen their understanding. So how does this marry with the mastery approach?

    I think it is perhaps more helpful to consider differentiation as maximising potential. In order for all pupils to be challenged effectively, teachers will need to consider how the learning is made accessible at all levels. In my opinion, this is where the confusion lies. Differentiation as we knew it in the old curriculum has changed. The word was removed from the Ofsted framework as it is no longer appropriate to look for 3 different activities aimed at each of the attainment groups: low, middle and high. HAPs, MAPS and LAPS are slowly disappearing from mathematics planning, but this does not mean that differentiation should too.

    Differentiation aka maximising potential, has become more subtle and sophisticated and therefore a ghost of its former self. Opportunities for all pupils to deepen their understanding can be achieved through a variety of flexible approaches, some of which are detailed below:

    • careful choice of resource and representation to both challenge and support
    • language/ vocabulary prompts to enable all pupils to reason effectively
    • low entry/ high ceiling activities for learning to build throughout the lesson
    • planning based on the underlying mathematical concept and therefore you may have some pupils in the class working towards understanding what a fraction is and others consolidating this understanding by considering how they might convince the teacher that ¾ is bigger than
    • learning tasks that are carefully constructed to enable pattern spotting and cognitive challenge
    • a range of skilful questioning to create challenge at all levels including key questions directed at specific pupils at specific pinch points during the lesson
    • flexible approach allows for misconceptions to be explored and clarified at the point it occurs

    In a nutshell, the question is not ‘What can I plan for my pupils that is pitched at their level?’ but

    How can I ensure my pupils access the learning at an age appropriate level?

    This style of differentiation requires the teacher to know their pupils well and have strong mathematical subject knowledge: Both key pre-requisites of the mastery approach.

    You can find more blogs about mastery here.

    HfL are re running our very popular teaching for mastery courses which you can access here, where we deal with what differentiation is and isn’t.


    One for the Trekkies


    Department for Education (2013) The National Curriculum in England: Key Stages 1 and 2 framework document. [Online] Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-primary-curriculum [Accessed 22 July 2016].

    Ofsted (2015) School Inspection Handbook. [Online] Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-inspection-handbook-from-september-2015 [Accessed 22 July 2016].

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