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Guest Blog: Differentiated Learning Activities In The Classroom

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In the second of our guest blog series, experienced History Teacher, Neil Martin discusses how to create and utilise differentiated learning activities in the classrooom Neil regularly blogs on his own website Actuality which offers expert insights into many education viewpoints. 


Differentiation In The Classroom

Over the course of my career I have taught both set and mixed ability classes. Both have their merits, set classes allow for a standardisation of pace (accelerated for the highly able for example allowing for stretching and less restriction with regard to content) and mixed ability allow for a range of interpretations to be brought to a lesson as well as allowing students to act as enablers for the success of their peers. Nevertheless, within each example there is still a range of ability and differentiation is always an element of planning that needs to be considered.

But what do we mean by differentiation?

In a broad sense differentiation meeting the needs of individual pupils so that they can learn. This not only means addressing the needs of those with SPLD but also those higher ability students.

Does differentiation mean different?

Richard Harris (Associate Professor Director of Teaching and Learning, Reading University) suggests that instead of attempting to slim down the curriculum by giving SPLD students easier material or indeed, simply giving the best students extension material we can allow all to succeed by following three clear principles when planning our lessons (Harris, 2005).

1 – Make the work engaging 2 – Make the work accessible but challenging 3 – Decide where you want to plan obstacles

What does this mean in practice?

Sensible planning; in essence that allows every student to learn appropriately no matter what their ability. Suggestions as to how each principle could be demonstrated in a lesson are as follows.

1 – Make the work engaging

For example:

  • A suitable narrative as an introduction to a particular topic
  • Art as a way of introducing a key historical concept – cause and consequence, change and continuity, significance
  • A foreign language news article relating to current events in the UK
  • An overarching Historical Enquiry
  • Physical history – props and artefacts
  • Revealing learning objectives later on in a lesson
  • Code breaking to discover learning objectives
  • Testing knowledge and ability with a tricky problem as students begin a lesson

The list could be endless; Harris concludes by explaining that enthusiasm and puzzlement are crucial, deliberately building up to what you want to do (Harris, 2005).

2 – Make the work accessible but challenging

At times I imagine that we are concerned that if pupils are not writing they are not learning. Nevertheless, pupils can still exercise and develop their analytical skills by not putting pen to paper. As educators it is vitally important that we consider a range of approaches. This in turn enables all forms of learner to achieve (audio, visual, kinaesthetic) and also promotes variety in the teacher's range of delivery.

Some further suggestions:

  • Using contradictory evidence to produce an account of an event.
  • Physically walking through a maths problem.
  • Visual images that can be used to pursue 'layers of inference'.
  • Presentation work as an end result focussed on points of certainty, probability and doubt.

3 – Decide where you want to place the obstacles

Within this element we are encouraged to consider the outcomes of our lessons; we can decide what to leave in and leave out. For example:

  • Considering the amount of quality writing that we want pupils to complete to consolidate their learning.
  • Using difficult text and employing methods such as reading it out dramatically together, identifying and addressing tone.
  • Highlight tricky words then use ICT with pupils to define those key words.
  • Summarising also presents a solution to difficult text or problems, especially if pupils are given a limit to that summary. This is a technique that can be built on as the pupils become more familiar with having to address more and more complex themes and lengthier articles.

Does differentiation matter?

In essence, yes it does matter, but, it is important not see differentiation as an obstacle to planning. See it more as opportunistic from a student and teacher perspective. Differentiation unlocks so much potential in the classroom and can offer the student a platform for future success and the foundation for achievement. For the teacher it expands and improves a repertoire promotes self-reflection and analysis of one's lessons and indeed one's students. So perhaps when you are planning your next lesson think outside the box a little and be different!

Harris, R. (2005). Does Differentiation have to mean different? Teaching History, 118, 5 - 12.

James Miller
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