What do we really mean by differentiation?

Differentiation is a strand in creating high challenge – low threshold learning. How whole class teaching can engage all learners, irrespective of their ability in challenging and enriching experiences depends largely on how differentiation works.  Balancing challenge and support in response to meaningful differences between groups or individual students, such as prior learning experience, prior attainment, gender or EAL status and enabling individual learners to steer their own path is much of what makes more able education tick.

Differentiation is nothing new, so why do schools still so often refer it to as an area for development?

Many teachers feel ill-equipped to talk about differentiation, even those rated as outstanding, perhaps finding it hard to be explicit how differentiation works in their classroom. Whilst some aspects of the teachers’ craft are more implicit than others it is probably fair to say that there is some confusion over what differentiation is and how it works both on paper in planning and in classroom practice.

Why does differentiation remains such a thorny issue?

Historically, many school’s G&T policies initially approached the issue of differentiation for G&T students from two directions, which can be (slightly unfairly) summarised as:

  1. We set lots of open-ended tasks
  2. There is plenty of extension work for our pupils if they finish the task

This combination of open-endedness and extension is problematic. If open-endedness means creativity and critical thinking, fine. Otherwise, the first of these is essentially differentiation by outcome, which is simply inevitable.  And the reality is that open-ended tasks can deliver very closed responses. Learning to cope with open-endedness is a skill in itself and teaching or managing learning in creative ways may take some colleagues well away from their comfort zone.

The second can be seen by some students as differentiation by punishment. Teachers setting tasks which reward learners for their hard work with more work, planning this in advance when it may not be used, possibly not having time to assess or even acknowledge it properly. The danger of saving the best or biggest questions until last or providing rewarding those who cope with the ordinary routine, with the gift of enrichment.

Guilty until proven innocent? 

In some schools differentiation is quite rigidly planned, with pressure exerted on teachers to prove how they will differentiate for all learners, sometimes way in advance of the lesson. This can involve colleagues taking hours to design tiered tasks, giving students a range of pre-arranged and pre-resourced choices, with extensive opportunities for enrichment. Never mind differentiation by process, this is differentiation by everything and it is unsustainable. It is also counter-intuitive to what differentiation could mean.

It is sadly ironic that more attention is not normally paid to observing, recording and thinking about how differentiation has occurred.

‘Less is more’ is a useful mantra for how differentiation should work for more able learners, but do all of our colleagues have the confidence or perspective to be able to strip out the chaff, or the willingness to allow learners the freedom to be able to do this for themselves?

Why is it the case that differentiation should automatically show up in a lesson plan? When teachers are asked what makes for a really good lesson, they often mention learners taking risks, expressing unusual or very personal insights, showing flair or discovering their individual voice as a learner. How do we plan for these?

Top-down planning

A strong message in more able education education has been for top-down planning. This has been partly driven by the need to shift colleagues away from more pedestrian, linear teaching and a glib view of differentiation that starts from the average student or ‘up a bit, down a bit, left a bit, right a bit’ approaches.

The top-down message supports the ‘rising tides’ argument, which takes the view that with high aspirations for all, we should encourage all learners towards higher achievement. In terms of classroom ethos this is taken as a given, but does the top-down principle always apply?

What higher order thinking looks like differs according to the age of the learner, the subject, how it is assessed and in other ways which make the hierarchical view of models like Bloom’s difficult to sustain.  High performance in maths or science for example, requires the ability to be able to use small fragments of knowledge or to follow specific processes, accurately. What the hierarchy tells us are lower order skills can in practice be very challenging to learn.

A more bottom-up approach to planning in these circumstances may make far more sense. Giving students essential knowledge may be a pre-requisite to engagement. No rising tide here.

Either way, the teacher’s activity can mask a lack of active engagement by the student. A more useful approach is to consider what the learner is actual being asked to do. From their perspective another definition of higher order thinking emerges.

Higher order thinking involves any activity where learners are required to take a range of inputs (ideas, resources, knowledge, data, etc) and apply, rearrange and/or extend these to produce their own product (ideas, processes, solutions, analysis). Higher order thinking occurs when learners are required to think for themselves, so differentiation in turn relates to how teachers create the conditions for this to happen.

10 ways to think about differentiation

LG&T have devised a framework called 10 ways to think about differentiation, which presents differentiation in the following ways:


Self-direction by students can be applied to all of the other methods and this is key to how differentiation can be used to help us understand how to enable learners to become more social and speculative, to function as independent learners.

Once again, we are back to the question of what we are trying to achieve and how we might do it. Differentiation is not an end in itself and perhaps we need to put the cart and horse back in the right order.