Articulating differentiated practice… what I see in a differentiated classroom


Differentiation looks different in every classroom

You should aim to be able to describe the various strategies you use to differentiate for students.

By Kylie Bice

We are in danger of the idea of differentiation becoming so nebulous that we either think we know what it is fully and thoroughly, or we have no idea what it means and are sceptical that it is even possible. 

It is so important for teachers to be able to explain and describe their practice so they can be confident that are differentiating, and so they can share their strategies with others. I have discussed in a previous blog (How well do parents know how learning happens in your school?) the importance of schools being able to articulate their quality every-day teaching practices, so that they:

a) value the quality teaching that happens every day, and;

b) don’t fall into the trap of offering more and more tangible (but sometimes unnecessary) additional programs so it looks as though something is happening for students.

Differentiation looks different in every classroom, and this post is my effort at explaining exactly what I see (and look forward to seeing!) when I walk into classrooms where differentiation is happening best. 

Differentiation is visible in many places in a school, including:

  • Teacher behaviours in the classroom (language, tone, strategies, behaviours)

  • Student activities, tasks, products & resources

  • Pre, formative & summative assessments and data collection practices

  • Classroom environment, structure & routines

  • High Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) and questioning

  • Student engagement and inquiry

  • Documentation (programs, lesson plans, assignment outlines, tests, marking rubrics, data etc)

As a teacher or school leader, you should aim to be able to describe the various strategies you use to differentiate for students, including any or all of the above aspects.

What specific strategies would you describe if a parent asked you, “How do you differentiate for my child?”

As a teacher: How would you describe the practical strategies that you use in your classroom and teaching practice?

As a school leader: How would you describe the practical strategies that are implemented throughout the school?

ENVIRONMENT, PROCESS, PRODUCT, CONTENT are the core areas for differentiating and the below list is a mixture of all these, with an emphasis on content (or level of difficulty) to ensure student work is differentiated to match students’ learning needs.

When I walk into a differentiated classroom, I see (and hope to see!):

Year 1 English - Procedural Writing

  1. Tiered tasks, resources and assessments

  2. Flexible seating options, including catering for sensory needs.

  3. Students are thinking at different levels.  They can explain what they are learning and why.  They can explain why it is different to other students or related to their own learning goals.

  4. Student work on display is not cookie-cutter.  Individual goals or whole-class goal progressions are visible.  Displayed student work is individualised in some way.

  5. Students are selecting or being allocated tasks that match their learning needs and interests from the beginning of lessons, not just moving from activity to activity where all difficulty levels are the same, racing through easy work, or finding everything too difficult.

  6. Visible lists of tiered student groups (Eg. Spelling or maths groups).

  7. Visible lists of tiered skills (Eg. Spelling words) These can be visible as a colour-coded system, or sets of files/activities, or boxes of tiered activity cards, questions or prompts, tiered success criteria, lists or grids of goal progressions etc.

  8. Students and teachers using rubrics or similar to monitor skills achieved, goals and progress, to measure learning gain and to give individualised feedback.

  9. Teachers moving around the classroom interacting differently with each student or group, collecting informal formative assessment data, and doing dynamic ‘standing planning’ for the next lesson or learning goal/s.

  10. Teachers making allowances for students according to need (Eg. Seating, sensory strategies, behaviour strategies, extra time etc).

  11. Teachers can explain why students are in certain groups or have particular learning goals (Ie. they are collecting and using pre and formative data). Check out this video of a Year 1 classroom teacher describing why and how she has differentiated.

  12. Teacher planning documents show different activity, pace and resource options for different abilities (including lesson plans, programming documents, daily workpads etc).

  13. Assessment outlines, marking practices and feedback is tiered and aligns with students’ learning goals (Eg. Rubrics instead of marking keys).

  14. A sense of calm among the difference.  Language, tone and behaviour of adults and students does not isolate, but rather makes everyone feel valued.  Students are relaxed and confident regardless of who they are working with or what they are working on.

  15. A teacher who can describe how they differentiate. And in this way show me all the lovely strategies I have missed because they are so seamless and inclusive!

Important to note:

Notice there is nothing here about group work or noise levels.  Great differentiation can happen in a quiet or noisy classroom, when students are in groups or working individually. 

There is also nothing mentioned here about open-ended tasks or allowing student choice.  These two strategies are important, but on their own may or may not allow for differentiation:

  • Open-ended tasks are not necessarily differentiated and in fact sometimes they can limit students to trying to guess what the teacher wants rather than true differentiation at different levels of difficulty.  Often the teacher can see all the possibilities within an open-ended task and so believes it is inherently differentiated.  If, however, students cannot see the difficult levels or possibilities, then they are at best guessing how to extend themselves or attempt a modified version.  To be differentiated, open-ended tasks need to have tiering or learning goals built in. 

  • Student choice is an important engagement strategy for students and I almost always use it for differentiating product according to interest, however there must also be differentiated content (or tiering) not just free choice.  Otherwise it remains an interesting engagement strategy but the learning itself has not been differentiated for content/difficulty.

What happens in your differentiated classroom? 

Can you describe your differentiation strategies?…

Want to learn more about how to differentiate in your classroom or school? Check out our differentiation courses for teachers and school leaders, or Contact Us to ask about targeted professional learning for your staff.

Growing Up Greatness offers professional learning and courses in Differentiation.

Growing Up Greatness offers professional learning and courses in Differentiation.