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Is differentiation a swear word?

Differentiation. A perfectly innocent concept which snuggles comfortably in the common sense zone of your brain; camouflages itself in the sidelines of your classroom; makes regular, modest appearances in your day-to-day teaching…

But then rears its huge ugly head twice a year to instill fear in even the most talented and experienced of teachers across the land!

Je m’appelle Differentiation


There it is, on your lesson plan, all pumped up  with self-importance. You are going into battle and differentiation might be the deciding factor between a good and an outstanding judgement.

‘But every good teacher differentiates!’ I hear you cry. I know this. The observer knows this. Ofsted know this. But what we all also know is that differentiation is something you do naturally, automatically, sensitively and spontaneously.

Why should it become explicit? Well… do you trust your observer to notice how discreetly you switch your questioning from one pupil to the next? Do you trust that your observer be alert enough to notice that you have slipped one pupil a support sheet? Do you trust the observer to get inside your head as you mentally assess a pupil’s level of response and decide if a) praise or b) further challenge is required?

I don’t have that trust. So I play the game. I make my differentiation explicit. Whenever somebody else walks into my classroom, ready to pass judgement on my teaching, differentiation becomes a swear word! And this is how I tell it to **** off…

  1. Support and Challenge idea: Cardboard folders stapled to the wall. IMG_6897One for ‘support’, the other for ‘challenge’. Inside the support folder I usually put a one-page-learning sheet relevant to the topic. (Maybe add a little something extra on the observation day specific to that lesson ?) Inside the challenge folder I usually find an article from If it is related to the topic even better. (Again, for the lesson observation I would find something très specific). You need to make this a habit for the pupils, give them permission to access these folders without checking with you. They should seek support or challenge automatically, leaving you to sit back smiling smugly in the general direction of the observer. In your face differentiation, 1-0 to us!
  2. Support idea: Survival Kit. Designate a table, shelf or box to this. Fill it with the essentials for that lesson- it could contain model answers; tense help sheets, checklists, dictionaries…. I personally find that pupils accessing the survival kit usually select a model answer and can adapt the version with success. Consider highlighting the words they should adapt.
  3. Challenge idea: Surprise Eggs. image1This little gem comes via Twitter from the brilliant Carmel Bones @bones_carmel. Hide challenges or extension tasks inside plastic eggs. (I use my kids’ empty kinder egg cases but you can get similar from Pound shops). I add a sweet for extra reward. Have these in a box on your desk and make a show of chucking them a plastic egg/ball when they ask for a challenge or task extension. For a lesson observation I would ensure that the task relates directly to the lesson objective ie. Highlight all of the adjectives you have used/recognised and look up an alternative in the thesauras.
  4. Support and Challenge idea: Buddy/mentor medals. Once the more able pupils have finished, get them to support the others?  Great strategy, but it can result in what looks like chaos. What looks to the observer like reduced engagement- the observer doesn’t know who is a buddy and why they are wandering around the room. The pupils in need of support don’t know who is there to help. Solution: get the buddies them wear a special medal or badge. They might protest but they love the attention really. Perhaps all the badge wearing buddies earn themselves an extra reward at the end of the lesson?
  5. Challenge and Support idea: Playtime! Slide1I have spent ages designing board games that I can use as a support or challenge task. If I identify a struggling pupil I ask them to attend a play date. (I invite them via their books, great DIRT technique). They are sacrificing their own time because I need to support them outside of classroom time but they know they will spend that time ‘playing’ a board game with me and a small group of pupils. It’s a great way of revising vocabulary, consolidating grammar and developing speaking and listening skills. I have board games for sale here at my TES store. I use them for early finishers as well- usually as a way to introduce the new topic.
  6. Challenge ideas: Task cards. These are something I have stumbled upon since selling my resources to US teachers. I believe they are used for literacy centres- a concept I have been experimenting with in my French classroom. I love that they are often grammar focused (which will become even more important with current Y9s) and therefore ideal for stretching the more able pupils. You can find some great task cards here at Madame R’s store.

Ofsted claim to endorse typicality. So I cling to the security of my visible and explicit differentiation techniques, train my pupils to routinely access them and have faith that I can walk into battle with my best foot forward.

I would love to hear how you differentiate on a day-to-day basis and how you pull out the big guns for O-Day!