Smart Differentiation…again

Recently I’ve seen some great attempts at lifting the lid on learning in classrooms. It’s nice to see that old three way differentiation, ability grouping scenario disappear from our classrooms. Having been one of those children who sat on ‘that table’ when I was a kid and did ‘that work,’ while I looked over in awe at the illusive ‘top table,’ who I was sure did work akin to top secret service code breaking, yes having lived through that it is a pleasure to see that stratification of the classroom wane.

A while ago I blogged on ‘smart differentiation’ and I thought I’d come back to it because I’ve seen this type of approach popping up more and more. A while ago now, I started offering choice to ALL pupils in differentiating their own learning to suit where they were in their learning. I haven’t looked back.

It doesn’t have to be bells and whistles, it can be used on any lesson – but the important thing is to think about the range of ability in your class and provide a progressive range to meet that. Once you get going it isn’t too hard to do because most things children learn have a next step or a previous step.

I provide these choices as either activities on different coloured paper, or different areas on the board, or in baskets or pots on the children’s tables and I call the activities MUST, SHOULD or COULD, and often there’s a MIGHT too. Through modelling and discussion the children know what each activity entails and then it’s up to them to choose. They sit in mostly mixed ability groups, but access whatever they feel suits them.

This MUST/SHOULD/COULD concept has been around a while, I can’t remember where I first heard it (sorry whoever you are) but lots of teachers picked it up, but never quite took it through to an enduring pedagogical approach to differentiation. We’ve tried to.

The first few times there’s a bit of a wobble as the bravado boys choose activities too far ahead,  and then others allow themselves to coast on a MUST when they could easily go for a SHOULD or even a COULD!   However, this doesn’t take long to change as children actually don’t like doing things that are too easy for long, and they certainly don’t like feeling things are too hard either – just a little uncomfortable is just fine. We have a culture which means all children want to challenge themselves and help each other too so …it all just works.

The wonderful thing is to see children unrestricted in their learning and learning shoulder to shoulder in a very positive way. Everyone feels they can get there…it’s only a matter of time and effort. This has a profound effect on the psyche of the class, which is very powerful – like nuclear powered learning really. A healthy competitiveness abides, but it’s supportive and enjoyable.

Anyway, here’s a photo of one of today’s lessons – this time baskets were at the front to choose from. It wasn’t a fancy lesson at all, fraction questions from a book (come on it’s the end of term). But the number of children who started off gingerly trying the fractions of shapes then by the end were finding fractions of numbers and then multiple unit fractions anything was possible, progress before your eyes. Pure gold!

It’s worth a try. I’d have liked a chance like that when I was seven!

2 thoughts on “Smart Differentiation…again

  1. Juliet

    Hi Beth

    I’m a primary school teacher in Warwickshire. I share many of your interests, particularly in science and assessment (I recently graduated with a Masters in Educational Assessment, focussing on primary science!). I like your ideas of ‘smart differentiation’. I’ve always had a distrust of traditional classroom differentiation where tasks are differentiated by preconceived ideas about pupils’ ability. I’ve definitely seen the detrimental impact on the ‘lower ability’ pupils and their failure to access the curriculum year on year. My personal ideal is that pupils are able to follow independent trajectories and I think this can be facilitated by e-learning and embedded assessment, including all the Web 2 tools at our disposal, but the UK educational establishment seems particularly suspicious of electronic modes.

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