There is a variety of ways teachers can differentiate classroom activities. This page is a collection of general ideas for differentiating lessons. I will present specific examples from my own teaching and other subject specific methodologies on another page.
A good strategy to begin, which goes back to my point about teaching from the top, is called ‘Upwardly Mobile’..
1. Teach from the Top
International Research suggests that mixed ability teaching is more beneficial than streaming for all ability groups. That said, the gifted children I have taught hated mixed ability classes. This wasn’t because the classes were mixed ability per se. It was because there was nothing in it for them.
Indeed, teachers would do well to remember that children can be very ego-centric and will sit in your class wondering WIIFM – What’s In It For Me? (Ian Gilbert ‘Essential Motivation in the Classroom’.)
The problem with mixed ability is that research also shows teachers tend to teach to the middle. This is fine for middle ability students. They get work they can do. It’s usually fine for weaker students as they get to stretch a little. And with SEN support, they may have the opportunity to fill in any gaps that are left over after class.
However, teaching to the middle does nothing for Exceptionally Able children. If education is about helping children achieve their potential, then gifted children need material which is pitched just beyond their ability – in their ‘zone of proximal development‘.
Teachers can help Exceptionally Able children by planning their lessons from the top. Start by designing a lesson that will challenge the most able students. Then, adjust the lesson to suit children of lesser ability in your subject.
In reality, this will mean designing classroom student activities (and homework) at different levels since the teacher-led part of the lesson cannot realistically, in every lesson, be designed to be delivered to suit every single ability level separately.
And while it would be helpful to have 30 differentiated activities – one for each student – this is not realistic. Therefore teachers can group student of similar ability. In the average class of 30 students, 2 will be gifted. They can engage in the same activity. Weaker students, again, one or two (depending) can share a simpler activity. A larger number of students will have similar ability around the average. They can be treated as one group.
While having, for example, 3 separate activities on the same task/lesson may seem a a lot of extra work, it is. But once the success of the lesson has been demonstrated, the teacher has one model for a particular lesson that can be used again.
This is fool proof. Obviously, when a teacher tries out a new method in class, it should be anonymously evaluated to discover the pupils’ experience of the lesson. It should also be tested to discover whether attainment is successful.
2. Upwardly Mobile
There is one activity with 3 components. the teacher outlines the activity and encourages all pupils to aim for the top
Must – all students expected to achieve this minimum
Should – most pupils should be able to do this
Could – only a few students will get to this level
It is a good idea to have different methodologies for each level so that there is variation within the activity at each level. Exceptionally Able children would be expected to complete all three levels. In a plenary, the astute teachers will ask weaker student to provide answer from ‘must’ and stronger students answers from ‘could’ so students get to answer from a level pitched to their ability. There is little to be gained by asking a student a question to which you know they won’t be able to provide some sort of answer. In either case, students completing the work need to be able to demonstrate their learning.
3. Bloom’s Taxonomy
Bloom’s Taxonomy is a classification if learning objectives spread across three domains – cognitive, affective and psycho-motor. Bloom’s original text focused on the cognitive domain. Within this domain there are six levels – 1. Knowledge, 2. Comprehension, 3. Application, 4. Analysis, 5. Synthesis and 6. Evaluation. Traditional education focuses on the first three skills with less or little attention paid to the last 3 higher skill.
Differentiated lesson planning for Exceptionally Able children should focus on offering challenges that involve Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation. This is not to say that lessons that involve these can not be open to children with lesser ability. however, for children of average ability it is often the case that they teacher must ‘cover the basics’ first before introducing more challenging behaviour. Exceptionally Able children will acquire the first three skills very much more quickly than other students – if they haven’t already!
On the introduction of a new topic or course material, good teaching practice requires that a teacher first find out what students (all of them) may already know about a topic. Afterall, there is nothing to be gained by teaching something that is already learned. The simplest way to find out what students already know is to ask them. Alternatively, a pre-test of a topic is an excellent way to discover prior knowledge. Not only will it reveal who know what (and therefore who may need most attention), but it is a good way of communicating learning objectives.