Sue Cowley is an experienced teacher and trainer who has written a number of best-selling books on classroom management. Here she shares her practical tips and teaching strategies for effective differentiation.

by Sue Cowley
30th April 2018

When you consider the range of experiences, knowledge and skills that the students in your classes have, it seems obvious that you would need to differentiate for them. One student might be a high attainer who frequently reads for pleasure at home; another might struggle with literacy and never open a book out of choice. Differentiation is also a requirement of the teachers’ standards in England – we must ‘know when and how to differentiate appropriately, using approaches which enable pupils to be taught effectively’. But differentiation is also an ethical and practical consideration – if there is a child in your class who is brand new to English, it would be morally wrong to do nothing to try and support them, and they would learn nothing in a lesson without at least some differentiation taking place. See this resource for some strategies that you can use to support learners with English as an additional language.

Take back ownership of 'differentiation'

Differentiation has come under fire in recent years, perhaps mainly because of the potential for a negative effect on workload. The idea that differentiation means creating different worksheets for different children in every lesson clearly has a serious time implication for teachers. But I would argue that, rather than seeking to abandon differentiation, we should instead challenge preconceived notions of what differentiation ‘must look like’. We need to take back ownership of the term, and celebrate the myriad of ways in which teachers adapt learning for their students, to make it clear that effective practice is not only (or even mainly) about differentiation by task.

Differentiation is essentially good teaching – a process of adapting to and being flexible with learners, and an approach that can sometimes be so subtle that it might not be apparent to the untrained eye. It is about the moment when you choose a particular student to answer a question, because you know her confidence needs building and she has her hand up for once. Or that time when you take your knowledge about a student’s interests and create an anecdote around that interest, to better engage him with the learning. The first step to differentiation is always about gaining knowledge – who your learners are, what skills, knowledge and experiences they already have, and how can you support and utilise these through your teaching. You can find five top tips for finding out more about your students in the resource below.

Building relationships

Interestingly, differentiation is not just about teaching and learning, it extends to classroom and behaviour management as well, particularly when you are building relationships. It is that moment when you decide that a firm, direct approach will work best for one child, and a quiet word, gesture or look will work best for another. When you know who needs boosting up and supporting and who needs challenging or a firm push in the right direction. To my mind, differentiation is one of the most highly skilled aspects of a teacher’s practice, and it is one of the key ways in which we build relationships with our students. When we demonstrate that we care enough to adapt to the people who are sat in front of us, then we reclaim differentiation, as the flexible, responsive approach to teaching that it really is.

Read more about differentiation and get practical and time-saving strategies for effective differentiation in Sue Cowley’s book, The Ultimate Guide to Differentiation

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