Building challenge: differentiation that’s quick and works

Since having a good long think about differentiation some while back it doesn’t keep me up at nights nearly as much as it used to. But this is still one of my most visited posts so clearly other folks continue to be troubled. I want to set out my stall early by saying that this is yet another of those troublesome topics which is far simpler than most teachers imagine. My bottom line is that mucking about with the ‘All Most Some’ approach to differentiation by outcome is the work of the Devil of Low Expectations, and is to be shunned.

Another question which I’ve been kicking around for a while is the difference between ‘task’ and ‘outcome’. Generally, we consider differentiating by outcome as charalatanism and the preserve of those too idle to plan. Differentiating by ‘task’ is virtuous and suggests we’ve been hard at work planning what each and every one of our little lovlies will be doing at every moment in our lessons.

The truth (certainly the truth as I see it) is elsewhere altogether. At my previous school teachers where obliged to record ‘learning objectives’ at the start of each lesson. This, I considered, was only right and proper. At my new school, we talk in terms of ‘learning outcomes’. Initially, I railed against this and thought it a distinction likely to result in teachers thinking about activities rather than learning. The scales fell from my eyes when I read here that we should think about lesson planning in terms of ‘learning’ so that ‘outcome’ ensuring that there is a simply explicable point which everyone involved can nod and subscribe to. We are learning X so that we can do Y. Not only has this streamlined my planning but it’s made thinking about differentiation easier too.

You will, no doubt, be delighted to hear that there are alternatives to much of the nonsense insisted on by poorly informed school leaders: the two ways I avocate approaching differentiation are:

  1. Marking & feedback
  2. Task design

The first is fairly straight forward. Students do work, I mark it with feedback that requires them to do (or re-do) something, and then they do it. Based on my knowledge of each individual I will have a good idea of what they’re capable or and whether the work they’ve handed in demonstrates progress. I would aim to mark a class’s books regularly enough that at least 1 out of every 4 lessons is spent acting on feedback. Not only does this mean that every student in the class has a uniquely differentiated lesson plan, it also means that I don’t have to fritter away my time planning ‘activities’ (shudder!) Marking, therefore, is an integral component of the 2 Minute Lesson Plan.

The second is a barrowload of low access (and effort), high impact tricks that I’ve cobbled together (pinched) over the past few years to force students to make choices. Task design is diametrically opposed to activities. Activities  or keeping students busy, is high effort, low impact. Spending time carefully crafting what Jim Smith calls Fireworks Moments which look great but are over in minutes, or seconds, are an absolute waste of everyone’s time.

Here’s some examples of the kind of easy to plan, challenging to complete tasks which should be part of every thinking teacher’s planning:

This one comes courtesy of @dockers_hoops

This one comes courtesy of @dockers_hoops

Students need to use their knowledge of George and Lennie, two characters from Steinbeck’s classic (and English teachers’ perennial staple) Of Mice and Men to make a decision. This task can be accessed at the level of “I’d be a bit scared of Lennie trying to stroke me” or at the level of analytical and evaluative comment. The choices they make and how they articulate them are, of course, based on their ability.

Here’s another one:

Screen Shot 2013-07-20 at 16.14.00

This is a little more demanding as the characters come from different texts and also ask students to consider something outside their every day experience. But, they’re both women, both characters in Shakespeare plays and as such have enough similarities to make the question accessible.

These questions can be used as a springboard for some oracy development using thought stems or as a prompt for a piece of analytical writing, but the act of having to make and explain a choice will allow students of differing abilities to come up with different kinds of responses. If I want to increase the challenge, all I need to do is either decrease the similarity between the choices or add more items to chose from.

Here’s another idea:

Screen Shot 2013-07-20 at 16.10.20

I love getting students to compare things. Not only does it crop up a lot as an assessment objective in the English curriculum but it is the single best way I know for teaching a concept. In the past I’ve tried and failed to use Venn Diagrams (NB: Venns still have their uses) to help students see the similarities and differences between things but Comparison Alley is a much more user friendly tool. I was introduced to the idea by the prodigiously talented Darren Mead and have not looked back since. The advantage is that I’m no long trying to squash all my similarities into the tiny space between the intersecting circles of a Venn. In the example above students summon up all the stuff they know about these two poems and then organise it visually. This act of organisation helps students to focus on the relationships between the things they know and provides a  foundation for them to begin the process of analysing these comparisons.

Here’s one of my favourite Comparisons Alleys:

Screen Shot 2013-07-20 at 16.17.14

This is a great way for students to analyse metaphors. They get to see the unique properties and the overlaps between the source and the target. In this case ‘thee’ and a ‘Summer’s day’. Obviously this needs some contextualising; the knowledge that a Summer’s day is a bit sweaty and plagued by wasps might not shed new and interesting on Shakespeare’s intentions in using this metaphor to describe the object of his affections. Again, the quality of students’ responses is not dependent on their ability to access the task but on the quality of what they already know and understand.

Another favourite technique for getting students to organise their knowledge in interesting ways is Six Degrees of Separation (this time purloined from Zoë Elder.) The challenge is to be able to come up with a logical sequence between one idea and another.

Screen Shot 2013-07-20 at 16.09.59

This example is pretty easy as both the start and end point have been determined. Also we’re just trying to get from one concrete noun to another. This becomes much more challenging when we produce something like this:

  1. Get students to select an aspect of the topic you’ve been covering.
  2. Show them some sort of stimulus – a picture, a film, a piece of music, or whatever
  3. Get from the stimulus to their topic in 6 steps. Or, if you want to make it harder, 7. Or 13.

The point to all this is that students are not only recalling what they know about a topic, they’re also having to sequence this knowledge and having to think about cause and effect. You can easily differentiate by putting in check points which careful selected individuals have to include such as, at step 4 must be The Battle of Hastings, or step 3 must be oxidisation. Think carefully about whether providing these check points is increase support or adds challenge. You can also provide keywords which need to be included or (cue evil laugh) avoided!

My last offering in this post is another gift from Darren Mead which ne calls Before Before After After. Here’s an example*;

Screen Shot 2013-07-20 at 16.18.29

In this case, you could ask students to describe what they can see now. This is simple. All that’s required is identifying what’s there. Equally, you could use a written text, a diagram, a film clip or a page of statistics for this exercise.

Next, ask students to shift their focus to Before.

Screen Shot 2013-07-20 at 16.18.38

What might this picture have been like if it had been taken 5 years before? Now students have having to rely on their wider knowledge and apply it to what they identified as taking place now. In the case of a story, how might it be different if it were set 5 years earlier? And then? Ask them to speculate what it might be like in 100 years time? Now they’re having to bring together all kinds of knowledge to hypothesise about possibilities and probabilities.

Screen Shot 2013-07-20 at 16.18.46

And finally, I like to share an idea developed by Lisa Ashes which she called Question Squares:

Screen Shot 2013-07-20 at 16.21.12

Apologies to mathematicians; clearly these are not squares. However, they do promote thinking and get students to expand out their ideas from What, through How, to Why. If you want to increase challenge and give yourself an easy life (and who doesn’t?) simply give the topic title and and ask students to record What they know, How it connects, and Why it’s important.

The effectiveness of all of these ideas depend on the quality of questions you ask. The way we design tasks is essential if we are to allow students to work with content knowledge in increasingly complex ways. Just simply covering the course is not only ineffective, it’s irresponsible.

So, could differentiating be as simple as planning the questions being asked, giving feedback on the results and then providing time and space for the feedback to be acted on? Yes, I think it is.

The observant amongst you may have noticed that all of the above are ways of structuring SOLO HOT maps without having to bother with fiddly bits of paper. Shhh! Don’t tell anyone.

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42 Responses to Building challenge: differentiation that’s quick and works

  1. […] Spy < Education < jon1curley Get flash to fully experience Pearltrees Building challenge: differentiation that?s quick and works ? The Learning Spy Since having a good long think about differentiation some while back it doesn?t keep me up at […]

  2. […] Building challenge: differentiation what’s quick and works […]

  3. […] My bottom line is that mucking about with the 'All Most Some' approach to differentiation by outcome is the work of the Devil of Low Expectations, and is to be shunned. So, what's a body to do?  […]

  4. Jamie Warner-Lynn says:

    This is a really helpful and clear-eyed view of the vexed issue of differentiation, a subject which plagues teachers. Thank you, everything suddenly seems so much more manageable!

  5. Suzanne Culshaw says:

    Love this, right up my (comparison) alley! I remember when my pgce mentee last term had that moment of realisation that his lessons were really just a list of (albeit entertaining) activities on a road to nowhere very interesting, great discussions were had about outcomes, success criteria…. He’ll be a better teacher for having to answer my challenging questions, I hope.
    I’ve long been aiming for depth of learning, think I’m getting there slowly via my use of questioning (planned & spontaneous) & by knowing who’s in front of me. It’s so important to see differentiation as one part of a much bigger whole, not a bolt-on to consider in isolation. It’s so constraining to be asked, during or after an observation, “so how have you differentiated?” Or “where is the differentiation in your lesson planning?” It says so much about the observer….

  6. […] A fantastic blog that explores the theme of differentiation but also looks at the importance of good questioning and developing oracy in the classroom.  […]

  7. Corinne Sherman says:

    Great, simple and effective ideas! Will implement them into my curriculum. Thanks

  8. learningspy says:

    Thank you Jamie, Suzanne & Corinne – much appreciated.

    I LOVE this line: “It’s so constraining to be asked, during or after an observation, “So, how have you differentiated?” Or, “Where is the differentiation in your lesson planning?” It says so much about the observer….”

    It does indeed. Almost as bad as being asked what you’ve ‘done’ about AfL!

  9. Siaran says:

    Thank you thank you thank you! I hate MSC & have been trying to buck the trend with SOLO and now have given more ‘grist to my mill’ and some great ideas to boot! Keep up the good work!!

  10. Debaser says:

    Ok, so if I understand you correctly, what you are advocating is ‘differentiation by target’.

    Let’s say you have two students with different targets, how would they use these targets to engage on different levels with the ‘tasks’ you present above? During your comparative analysis of ‘Dulce’ and ‘Suicide’, would you have some students with targets to ‘explain’ the comparison, some ‘exploring the comparison’, and some ‘evaluating the difference”?

    Your blog and book are excellent, but I’d really appreciate some more specific examples of what you’re describing.

    Also, I’m probably being a bit thick here, but how does the ‘comparison alley’ actually work? Is it essentially just an easy-to-draw venn diagram in which you write the differences on both sides and the similarities in the middle?

    • learningspy says:

      Debaser: I’m not sure where the target thing came from. Here‘s a glimpse into how I approach targets.

      The structures for explaining, exploring, analysing & evaluating are deeply embedded in my teaching and something that all my students will be familiar with. That said, I generally have ‘stuck stations’ around the room in case they need prompts.

      Comparison alley is, as you suggest, “essentially just an easy-to-draw Venn diagram” – there’s nothing especially clever going on.

      Does that help?

  11. […] Since having a good long think about differentiation some while back it doesn't keep me up at nights nearly as much as it used to. But this is still one of my most visited posts so clearly other folks continue to be troubled.  […]

  12. Debaser says:

    Sorry, by ‘target’ I mean a small piece of actionable formative feedback e.g.

    T: Use a greater variety of sentence structures

  13. Sue says:

    Following on from our ‘mini’ Twitter discussion re differentiation by outcome/task… The point I was making is that this essentially – certainly as understood within my school – is differentiation by outcome: the physical ‘task’ you have set them is the same with the difference-maker being what you expect them to understand by it, put into it and create/produce as a result of their own thinking. There is great merit in this and the more independent and responsible for their own learning students are and are going to become, then the more effective this form of differentiaiton will be.

    Our last set of (I apologise now for using the word) Ofsted targets included greater evidence of differentiaiton by task – asking students to physically do something different, according to their numerical and curricular targets/ability groupings (however you choose to arrange it) in order for them to meet the objective. Yes this is more ‘teacher-reliant’ I suppose and it shouldn’t always be down to the teacher to do all the resizing and reshaping but it is this personalised scaffolding of the task itself that supports anc challenges all the different levels wihtin my classroom.

    I absolutely expect them to think for themselves and to ultimately be working harder than I am, but I also feel that it is my shaping of the task in the first place, in different ways to target different abilities/ways of thinking/personalities – whatever – that will eventually lead them into becoming independent and resilient thinkers.

    Please do not feel that I am in any way denigrating the ideas above – I think they are fantastic and will most certainly be using them in my teaching – but just going back to my original comment on Twitter, within my school these ideas would be classed as differentiation by outcome and we are asked (not every lesson but on a regular basis) to show that we are catering for all the different students within the room through differentiation by task.

    • learningspy says:

      Thanks for this thoughtful response Sue. I guess I’d consider the type of differentiation you’re referring to ask ‘differentiation by resource’. While I understand why providing tailor made resources for all, students would be a ‘good thing’, it’s completely undoable: no teacher can reasonably be expected to operate like this. Which is why marking is the only really effective way to differentiate lessons for every students’ needs. Yes, you’re relying on their outcome but then you are providing them with individual, tailor made lessons based exactly on their needs and designed for them to make clear progress. What more could anyone ever ask?

  14. Sue says:

    It isn’t always as labour-intensive as it may sound; often it can just be about asking a different question or asking the same question in a different way, and then providing extensions to move succeeding students further on.

  15. learningspy says:

    Well, in that case it’s exactly what I’m proposing. Each of the ideas above are all about designing questions and providing extensions to support progress.

  16. Debaser says:

    What kind of things do you get them to ‘do’ with the marking feedback you give them?

    How does it result in a individual learning experience?

  17. learningspy says:

    We use a system called Triple Impact Marking – I’ve written about it here:

  18. […] Spy < deadshelley Get flash to fully experience Pearltrees Building challenge: differentiation that’s quick and works Since having a good long think about differentiation some while back it doesn’t keep me up at […]

  19. […] Building challenge: differentiation that’s quick and works […]

  20. […] week I clicked on @LearningSpy‘s blog on Differentiation and saw Comparison Alley; now this something that there is a lot of in biology. Compare and […]

  21. […] Building challenge: differentiation that’s quick and works « The Learning Spy […]

  22. […] with the work we are doing with the raising attainment group in West Lothian. I tried out the who would lessons from this page and was pleased with the resulting discussions in the […]

  23. […] Which segues neatly into my second principle: every time you mark students’ work should be time spent working out whether they can do what you think they can and what they need to do next. Instead of just writing them feedback, I ask them individual questions, and set focussed tasks for them to complete in Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time (DIRT). I’ve also argued before that marking is the purest form of differentiation. […]

  24. […] Which segues neatly into my second principle: every time you mark students’ work should be time spent working out whether they can do what you think they can and what they need to do next. Instead of just writing them feedback, I ask them individual questions, and set focussed tasks for them to complete in Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time (DIRT). I’ve also argued before that marking is the purest form of differentiation. […]

  25. […] 5. Building challenge: differentiation that’s quick and works  19 January – 14,783 views […]

  26. […] to do or not to do Building challenge: Differentiation that’s quick and works Differentiating the responsive way from Andy Tharby is also good. And, surfing the differentiation […]

  27. […] week I have been trialling a range of strategies in differentiation from the Learning Spy. I just thought I would share my feedback with you to either provide helpful tips or perhaps remind […]

  28. […] Building challenge: differentiation that’s quick and works […]

  29. […] Building challenge: differentiation that’s quick and works 19th January 2013 –  8,486 […]

  30. Imran says:

    Dear Sue

    I wonder if you’ll get this as you wrote your points so long ago – but here goes: (I also wonder if David will get this?)

    Are David’s suggestions really just differentiation by outcome because everyone is doing the same task? And, if so, is this really so bad?

    Like many, I am grappling with this differentiation thing. I consider myself a dedicated teacher, but I really don’t want to be up all night designing individual tasks for individual pupils or even groups of pupils.

    But the real objection I have to individual task setting is the danger of pigeon-holing pupils, particularly in a mixed-ability setting.

    Let’s presume we are all using Blooms taxonomy as the gradient of challenge.

    If WE, AS TEACHERS, ACTUALLY SET the so-called low ability pupils with ‘describe tasks’ and WE SET the high ability pupils with the ‘evaluation’ tasks, then when do the low ability get to prove that they actually might be able to do the higher order tasks? Kids develop and mature at different rates and what they couldn’t do yesterday, suddenly what they CAN do today…just due to improvements in maturity, attitude etc

    And, in the end, we want all pupils to aim to evaluate: if you aim for the sun you might at least hit the moon. But of you just aim low you might not even get that low target.

    If someone says that after they have succeeded with the ‘describe’ task they could then attempt the higher order task, then that means that each child’s work first has to be marked before they can be allowed through to the next task. With a class of 30, how can we mark that quickly?

    And peer-marking is not reliable.

    What I infer from David’s post is that we can teach ALL pupils how to describe, analyse and evaluate at the same time, and then set the SAME task to all pupils, and they will access it at their own level of ability and understanding.

    And they will ALL have had the same OPPORTUNITY to work at the highest level (instead of some being stuck ‘swimming in the shallow end’ with the low order questions).

    To pursue the above metaphor: admittedly, those who can’t swim DO need to be in the shallow end…and they need to be in a different class. In mixed-ability classes they would be in a different group…and they might have a TA and – yes- then they WOULD require completely different tasks; and this is why mixed ability classes are the hardest to teach as you are planning several lessons within one lesson. If you have to do this for several lessons a day then the work load becomes immense.

    But if everyone in the class CAN ‘swim’ then surely they can be given the same task and success will be by outcome..with everyone practising and having the chance to aim at the same high point ..and then achieving according to their ability.

    How about if we allow pupils to attempt the same task….then differentiate for the lower ability by giving extra support eg word banks, sentence starters, exemplar answers?

    Or have I come full circle and will still be up all night because I am preparing different support sheets for the different pupils??


    Please do comment and advise.

  31. […] Building challenge: differentiation that’s quick and works – David Didau […]

  32. […] is capped because tasks do not offer enough challenge. Instead: Provide extension work that is genuinely more challenging, not just more of the […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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