What do we mean by task differentiation? 

What do we really mean by task differentiation, and how can we match tasks to the needs of individual learners? How do richer tasks and contexts enable teachers to avoid the rigidity of tiered task differentiation.

In some guidance on provision for more able learners, a simple set of continua is suggested. I would like to provide a commentary to look at how task design might be varied in order to match the task to the learning needs of individuals, and the key points are illustrated below:

Concrete to abstract

Thinking in the abstract is an important element of developing originality. Gifted and talented learners need to be able to manipulate abstract ideas and to use these flexibility within and between subjects. This is not all rocket science – abstract thinking can be as simple as learners suggesting rules that they can then use to make deductions.

Simple to complex

It is often said that more able students require tasks that are more complex in resources, research, issues, problems, skills, or goals than less advanced peers. However, simplification is a skill in itself and an important test of a more able child is their ability to be able to précis ideas and argument.

Basic to transformational

Higher order thinking is basically about making new thinking out of old – making sure that the learner is required to think for themselves, which usually involves producing something which is not the same as they were given.

Fewer facets to multi-facets

More able learners need to be given meaningful choices in their learning – creating questions and hypotheses to explain increasingly complex ideas, spotting patterns and testing their ideas to see if they work. The opposite of course is also true of learning. To do the same thing with a number of well-known quotations, we can say that ‘copying from one source is plagiarism, but from many is learning’.

Smaller leaps to greater leaps

Learners advanced in a subject often benefit from tasks that require greater mental leaps in insight, application, or transfer than less advanced peers. Scaffolding-out challenge is one of the greatest dangers in task design. Sometimes planning templates take learning theory too literally; this is most evident in the atomised straightjackets of the must-could-should type approaches which some schools tell us Ofsted want, but notably many HMIs tell us they don’t!

More structured to more open

Learners advanced in a subject often benefit from tasks that are more open in regard to solutions, decisions, and approaches than less advanced peers.

Less independence to greater independence

Learners advanced in a subject often benefit from greater independence in planning, designing, and self-monitoring than less advanced peers.

But, we have argued that being able to learn with others – interdependence – is in many ways more important for gifted learners, so in this case independence really means ownership, giving learners more control of the task, to self-direct or to be free to negotiate the meaning and scope of a task for themselves.

Quicker to slower

Pace is an expectation for a good lesson and there is no doubt that appropriate pace is important in creating challenge. From our observations of lessons, this generally gives rise to a number of questions, some of which may be:

  • how much practice does a learner needs in order to be able to demonstrate mastery of a concept?
  • how is momentum used in learning to expand thinking and not just to follow a linear process?
  • how can time or other constraints can be used to create challenge?

At other times, they may require a greater amount of time with a given study than less advanced peers so that they may explore the topic in greater depth and/or breadth.

The illustrations above make it clear that gifted learners need to be able to move in both directions along a continuum during the learning process and how this works is a key element of effective task design. For example, in dealing with a maths problem it be necessary for the student to investigate the range of potential solutions (concrete) to arrive at a proof or generalisation (abstract).

It is also apparent that providing flexibility in learning through task design and the way in which we manage learning is key to how effective differentiation occurs.