Thinking about differentiation


Rationale and background

A fairly frequent Ofsted inspection finding is ‘that the work does not accurately enough match the needs of the pupils’. The key purpose of this article is to outline the basic principles of differentiation.

One of the key learning theorists whose ideas underpin this session is Lev Vygotsly (1896-1934).

Vygotsky is a “social constructivist” and is usefully compared with people like Piaget and Gardner. Vygotsky suggests that children learn best through social interaction with others.

  1. Through the surrounding culture children learn both what to think and how to think. Culture provides a child with their thinking processes. Vygotsky called this the tools of intellectual adaptation.
  2. Cognitive development results from problem-solving experiences shared with someone else, usually a parent or teacher but sometimes a sibling or peer.
  3. Initially, the person interacting with child assumes most of the responsibility for guiding the problem solving (scaffolding), but gradually this responsibility transfers to the child.
  4. Language is the primary interaction through which adults pass on to the child the body of knowledge that exists in the culture.
  5. Over time children develop the ability to use internal language for learning.
  6. Internalisation is the process of absorbing the body of knowledge that exists outside the child.
  7. There is a difference between what child can do on his/her own and what the child can do with help. Vygotsky calls this the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).
  8. Much of what a child learns comes from interacting with others so it is wrong to focus on the child in isolation. New skills are learned socially.
  9. Interactions with the surrounding culture and More Kowledgeable Others (MKO) lead to a child’s intellectual development.

So far as teachers are concerned, the ZPD is particularly significant since it supports the idea of scaffolding learning so long as the child needs it. This is, of course, a key element of successful differentiation. It has been argued by Dr Ferre Laevers and Julia Moons[1] that the ZPD is where the child is involved in their learning. Where a task is too difficult for the competence of the child, it results in fear of failure and, where the task is too simple for the child, it results in boredom and depression. This is a useful illustration of the importance of differentiation.

For more information about Vygotsky’s theories, and a really useful video clip comparing Vygotsky and Piaget, go to:

Most teachers understand that it is no longer appropriate to teach to the middle but it remains a practice that is seen surprisingly often. The less/more model is a stage beyond one size fits all and, sadly, is also frequently observed in lessons. This is the idea that most pupils will do pages 3 and 4 but the least able will just do page 3 and the most able can go onto page 5. It is better than nothing. Just.

Differentiating by outcome is sometimes shorthand for ‘I haven’t actually differentiated this lesson’. As a stand-alone technique it usually falls on the point that it is important to understand pupils’ starting points, their prior learning and experience and their competence in the discipline.

Differentiating the task – setting different activities for ability groups is the most common strategy. Even when teaching the same area to the class, as might be encountered in a modern KS2 maths lesson in which the teacher is following the expectation that most pupils should move forward at roughly the same pace, there is every sense in providing a range of tasks that relate to pupils’ confidence and competence. Ideally, the pupil should have control over their learning so they select the level at which they will begin. At Millbank Primary Academy, teachers set the least challenging work as ‘I need to practice’, ‘right on target’ or ‘work my brain’.

Scaffolding the task is complementary to differentiating the work. It allows three-way differentiation to become five-way. In a primary school a typical differentiated maths lesson might see the activity matched to top, middle and lower ability groups but with a target group working on the most challenging work with teacher support and the SEN pupils working on the least challenging work with the support of a TA.

In planning intended outcomes where there are different learning expectations for groups of pupils, teachers typically refer to this as all, most, some, or must, should, could.

Differentiating the input is how most teachers match the needs of the pupils by tailoring their input, their explanations and their questions, to enable the full range of pupils to access the learning.

None of these strategies really stands alone, neither does any exclude any other. Differentiation is a complex business, often challenging for the teacher to deliver consistently.

Differentiate twice

Make the learning challenging. The learning should challenge pupils’ thinking at whatever level their ability. However, we should not assume that, because pupils may be weak in expressing themselves orally or in writing, they necessarily are incapable of advanced thinking and developing concepts. For this reason pupils whose work output will be limited by their expressive ability should not be expected to learn concepts or skills at a low level.

Make the activity accessible. When we think about the activity (how the pupils demonstrate their understanding), the work does need to match their expressive ability. This is because they need to experience success in the task as well as in the learning.

Thinking about differentiation is changing and there are complexities that have not been discussed here. This article simply provides a basic explanation. We will return to the topic later.

[1] Centre for Experimental Education, University of Leuven, Belgium


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