Developing a Language of Differentiated Learning

Over the holiday, I have been thinking a lot about the possible impact of CPD Learning Communities focused on differentiation.  At the end of last term, Sarah Wilton-Rhead said something that really crystallized my thinking on this: in order to differentiate effectively and sustainably, each teacher needs to develop their own personal ‘language of differentiation’ specific to their classroom and students.  Sarah W-R talked about how her students assimilate her differentiated categories of ‘friendly’, ‘tricky’ and ‘for the brave’ after just a few lessons, to the point where they use these words naturally in peer-based conversation, along the lines of, “I’m going to start with a few friendlies then go onto some trickies”.  Having watched one of Sarah Workman’s Maths lessons the week before (see previous blog entry), I was aware of how powerful students’ familiarity with these labels can be, and how seamless differentiation appears as a result.

So what would fully embedded differentiation look like across JOG?  Where do we want to be by the end of this academic year?  Speaking as a teacher of English, I now realise that embedding the language of differentiation in my classroom is a top priority for the year ahead.  By term 4, I want every student in my lessons to be able to articulate how differentiation looks and feels in my classroom; I also want to have confidence that my differentiation is genuinely student centred rather than an abstract concept or an add-on to normal practice.

Inspired by the two Sarahs and Maths Faculty generally, I have magpied some of their ideas regarding colour-coded objective setting and linked activities.  The picture below shows the last objective slide I shared with my Year 10 class before the holiday; under this is a picture of the slide I plan to use for lesson 1 of Term 2 next week.

Slide 1
Slide 1
Term 2 Slide
Slide 2

One of the aspects of Sarah Workman’s objective setting that I particularly liked was the fact that the different levels are not presented as separate categories in a hierarchy (see Slide 1), but that they form a continuum with one level flowing directly into the next.  Slide 2 has adopted this style, linking each stage to the level descriptors from the new GCSE Literature criteria. Accompanied by a verbal explanation and a closer look at the mark scheme, these objectives should guide students’ next steps without conveying a fixed mindset approach. As an aside, the pink background used for these slides is in itself an example of differentiation, catering as it does for the two students in the class who have Irlen Syndrome and the two others with dyslexia.

After thinking about colour coded differentiation in the context of RTM, where students had to start at the level indicated by their assessment, I wanted to try using the same colours to prompt student choice as part of a differentiated ‘Points Challenge’ task (see previous post).  Although some teachers argue that differentiation tools in Maths are tricky to apply in other subject areas, Sarah’s points template was like a gift for Year 11 revision on language features.  Slide 3 below shows how I categorized the objectives as ‘Mild’, ‘Hot’ and ‘Spicy’ for the student-led task; Slide 4 shows how easily I was able to adapt Sarah’s grid:

Slide 3
Slide 4
Slide 4

Although it’s only a starting point, I now feel that I understand fully what ’embedding’ differentiation means for me, and can continue working towards creating the language and colour-signposting that will be instantly recognisable to all the students I teach.

In considering this embedding process, one other idea that keeps coming back to me is the model of comfort/stretch/panic zones used by Mike on TD day 1:


C S P 2

When teaching, it is vital that we remember to pause for those ‘balcony moments’, during which we can ask ourselves honestly how many of our students are really in the yellow ‘stretch’ zone, and consider how to shift those who are just ‘zoning out’ due to stress or boredom.

At the end of our conversation, Sarah W-R and I discussed whether we thought that systems for differentiating should be the same across faculties; at least one local primary has developed a whole-school vocabulary for differentiated challenge in the form of ‘comfort’, ‘stretch’ and ‘super-stretch’.  Although such consistency has many merits, particularly in smaller schools, we liked the idea of JOG teachers coming up with words, images or signs that are in keeping with their own individual classrooms and teaching styles. ‘Mild/hot/spicy’ or ‘friendly/tricky/for the brave’ may work well for some, while others will prefer to use subject-based accolades, adapt level descriptors, appeal to growth mindset/’stretch’, or even use images.  As long as we are consistent with our students from lesson to lesson, and provide them with clear ways to understand and access differentiated learning in our classrooms, then we can enjoy the process of embedding in our own creative ways.

As someone on the World Wide Web once said –


Sharing Good Practice in Maths

When on climate patrol, I am always on the lookout for great examples of differentiated learning to share on the blog.  This morning, as part of the Maths Faculty Review, Eugene and I were guests in Sarah Workman’s lesson, and we saw some really effective techniques that could be easily adapted for use in other Faculties.  Despite having a heavy cold and being urged by concerned students to “take the day off”, Sarah delivered a highly engaging and effective lesson that used a variety of differentiation strategies to meet the diverse needs of the group.

SWN DiffStrikingly impressive was Sarah’s introductory slide (see left), which amalgamated both the structure outlined in the ‘7 Essentials’ training and ideas shared by Vicky Marshall about using ‘so that’ sentences.  The student-friendly language, colour coding and horizontal structure all helped students to understand the outcomes, and was presented in a format familiar to them from previous lessons.

After a timed starter to warm the students’ brains up on this cold Autumn morning, Sarah presented a differentiated review of algebra in the form of colour-coded tasks (see slide below).  Students were encouraged to challenge themselves by scoring as many points as possible in this lesson; at the end of Term 2’s learning, they will retake the challenge an
d aim to beat today’s score.  The differentiated structure of the task was strengthened by the fact that Sarah encouraged students to use the learning ‘bubbles’ in their books as reference points for answering different types of question.  This approach gave less confident students additional scaffolding, and ensured that all students were well placed to support themselves prior to asking for teacher assistance.SWN Diff

Eugene and I were very impressed by this task, and its potential for adaptability across subject areas.  I am already thinking about how I could use a similar format for revising language features in English.  If you are also inspired to try out this technique, it would be great to have some slides and/or photos for a follow-up post.

Marginal processes

In the summer term of last year (I know – the summer now seems like a distant memory!) I shared with you all one of the strategies/concepts that I use to measure the progress of SEN students.  The concept is based on the idea of ‘marginal processes’ which was a ‘mindset’ adopted by the England rugby team in 2003.  This method of focusing on individual processes and skills rather than rushing towards the bigger picture, is what the England coach attributed his team’s success to.  I think the idea of marginal processes applies well to differentiating work for low ability students as it allows them to feel that they are succeeding and this in turn makes them more driven to achieve greater success.

For more information about how the concept of marginal processes can be applied to teaching/differentiation, click on the link below.  If anyone has any further questions or would like me to have a chat with them about applying this concept in your own subject area then please send me an email –