Smart Differentiation – Part Two


In my last post I hope I set out some of the arguments for mixed ability groupings; here I’d like to share some of the ways I tackle this in the classroom.

If we accept that learning is more effective within mixed ability groupings, as opposed to children being grouped by ability (which is itself a misnoma as no two children are alike anyway) then the question is, how are all children allowed to learn and progress? This is where much thought and organisation come into play. Mixed ability grouping is one thing, but it should never be thought of as an excuse for less planning and less differentiation in learning opportunities  Here are a few fundamentals regarding ‘smart differentiation’, that cater for all, but allow differing abilities to rub shoulders:

  • THIS IS A PREREQUISITE! Make sure the class is a supportive learning orientated environment so that children are discouraged from showing off or mocking others who they might be ahead of. Make sure you cultivate an ethos of support for each other’s learning, where mistakes are seen as part of the learning process and that learning is seen as a ladder that every one is on and that everyone can move along. Make sure the high ability experience errors and stretch as much as everyone else!

Some activity options:

  • Three to four choices of activities made available to all and working towards the learning outcome and in degrees of challenge (I like to call these activities must, should, could and even would). These can be question cards, baskets/envelopes of different activities the children choose from or activity options on the board.
  • An open ended investigation can be used for all, as long as the investigation is accessible to the lower ability children and open ended enough to stretch the higher ability. Maths, science and the humanities might lend themselves more to this approach. Support tools/resources can be put on each table for children to use if they need, this is a form of differentiation too.
  • The higher ability option can sometimes be to write questions for others (as long as they can work out the answers!) This can only be done when the concept is really understood and can be applied!
  • Try to avoid the progression in difficulty just being more of the same, but go for ‘more of the same but different’ instead! By this I mean giving the  opportunity for the higher ability to use the concepts learnt in a different way. They should be demonstrating how the concept is used in a different context so that they are applying and synthesising what they’ve learnt. Another option is to give them examples they need to evaluate themselves, as in checking for errors or trying  to improve pieces. This is then one step further and progressing them towards evaluating the learnt concept.
  • Supporting ideas:
    • A ‘Carpet Clinic’ can be used before and during the activity. This is where anyone wanting further demonstration or support can stay on the carpet before going off to start the tasks, or during the lesson you can ask anyone wanting support  to come to the Carpet Clinic to clear up any misconceptions and set them straight again. This is also ‘real time’ assessment for learning isn’t it! You don’t want to get to the end of the lesson to find out who didn’t get it (that’s old school!)
    • Plan who you will support at the start of the lesson. Take the concept to a table and get the higher ability to explain how to do the simpler activities before everyone gets going. Then support individual(s) where necessary. The trick is not to stick to one pupil or set of pupils like glue every lesson. This applies to my teaching assistant too. This allows the children to learn to be independent too. It’s actually a disservice to a child to support them all the time.
    • Pause the class and do an AFL check. Then ask the children who think they are confident enough to explain things to someone else. Then pair the children up with the children who need help on the carpet for their own Carpet Clinic for a short while before going back to the tasks. (The children should be trained to use their mini white boards to give others demonstrations and to offer answers as they are questioned etc.
    • Use a carefully thought out ‘success criteria’  or ‘what makes good’ for the lesson so that the children know what success at each point should be like or what it takes. This is important because then they know when to progress on to the next activity.
    • Use peer assessment to ensure the children are pitching themselves at the right activity. Going through the success criteria in the lesson with a peer will help the children assess their own learning and see where they are.

    So these are just some of the ways I tackle differentiation with mixed ability groupings. I’m sure there are better ways out there, please let me know of them if you have them! However, I always try to stick to this idea when I plan and teach:

    “Everyone on the bus, everyone knowing where they’re going and everyone moving!”

     Stick to this and we can’t do wrong!

Smart Differentiation – Part One

Recently I blogged about teachers (and parents) breaking the habit of grouping children by ability. I tried to explain that with mixed ability grouping, and teaching using what I termed ‘smart differentiation,’ everyone’s a winner. While it might take parents time to appreciate that this benefits the highest ability children just as much as the lower, teachers today must adopt this kind of approach if they want to avoid embedding the achievement gap between children and fixing children’s ability status permanently in their own and other people’s minds.

Sadly, there are  parents who would seek to perpetuate the achievement gap between children when it appears to advantage their own child.  After all, their child is seemingly high ability because someone else is low. This is also a factor in the high stakes arena of selective testing when classmates are literally pitched against each other for a place at a high performing, selective secondary school. In this instance, it is understandably hard for parents not to want their child to be right at the top of the ladder because for some this is the only means to ensure a quality secondary school place. This is at present a structural reality within education that only political clout can overcome through policy. In essence,  so long as we have such great variation in school quality, and selective schools are allowed to cream off the top 25% of pupils in an area, then grouping by ability will continue to matter to some parents to the degree it does, regardless of whether it serves any of the pupil’s best interests in terms of learning.

Mixed ability grouping alongside the use of ‘smart differentiation’, allows all children to learn more, and more effectively. Although it might seem counter intuitive to these ability fixated parents, who can argue with the wealth of research that supports this. I would say, what about if everyone learns more, including your child? What about if the bar is raised for everyone and more children have a chance of getting ahead?

As I explained in my previous blog, ‘Ability Setting – breaking the habit’, offering different levels of activities but within mixed ability groups has a positive effect on all learners and in many different ways. While the most obvious benefit might seem merely social (now they can sit next to their friends – isn’t that what any of us would do if we could?) there are rewards from this approach in many ways, not least psychological. Those children previously assigned to ‘that table’ no longer feel stigmatised and possess a better sense of self esteem. If you’re aware of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, then you will know that self confidence and positive self esteem are prerequisites for effective learning. Interestingly, it works the other way too, as high ability children can suffer from confidence issues when grouped only alongside their high flying peers, in fact sometimes stiflingly so.  We must accept that learning is social and emotional and effective learning happens when a child is settled in each.

Yet mixed ability grouping simply for the sake of feeling nice and cosy with ones mates would be doing the concept a great disservice. Learning is enhanced when children are interacting and communicating with each other. Frightening as it might be to some parents, children learn much from chatting to their peers. Of course, a teacher must ensure it is the right chat, and not the latest debate on Moshi Monsters. They must ensure they are talking about their learning along with their errors and corrections. Children also learn by watching others do things and even more so by explaining their ideas to others. Explanation itself is at the heart of effective learning. Contrary to one parents’ view, that her bright child was ‘just a helper for the slow children’ (he went to a top grammar school so it worked then) high ability children cement their new learning by explaining to it to others.

Put simply, all children benefit from learning alongside a range of differing abilities for all the reasons that make learning what it is. Learning is constructing meaning and the best way to construct meaning is made through discussion and explanation which is a natural outcome of mixed ability grouping.

An excellent document on  called ActiveLearningWorks elucidates this well.

In Smart Differentiation – Part Two I’d like to share some of the things I do in the classroom to make sure the benefits of mixed ability grouping are maximised in the classroom.