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What is good differentiation?

Created on 21 May 2010 by ncetm_administrator
Updated on 08 April 2013 by ncetm_administrator


What does personalisation look like in practice?

When approaching differentiation it is important to remember that:

  • no two children will come to the classroom with the same knowledge or experiences
  • no two children will learn in an identical way
  • a learning environment for one child is not necessarily a learning environment for another
  • the more that the children themselves are involved in the process the more successful it will be.

It is true to say that children must do the learning themselves, teachers cannot do it for them. Therefore differentiation should be seen as allowing children different routes to increase their learning. It should not be ‘done to the children’, rather negotiated with them. The children will understand the purposes of differentiation if the teacher is working to engender a ‘growth mindset’ in the class (Dweck 2006).

If you want to explore the ‘growth mindset’ further then go to the research paper Thinking about Intelligence.

What is differentiation?

Differentiating means creating multiple learning pathways so that children who have different experiences, interests or preferred ways of learning, encounter appropriate ways to use, develop and understand concepts as a part of their daily learning experiences. Hence ‘differentiating’ expects children to take responsibility and ownership for their own learning. Differentiating makes use of teacher assessment of children’s learning needs but also expects children to make choices based on their own assessments.

Essentially the curricular goals will be similar for all children but the methodologies employed will be varied to suit to the individual needs of all children. It is sometimes most appropriate to conduct some whole group instruction but differentiation also requires opportunities for using methodologies such as peer teaching and cooperative learning. Readiness, learning styles and interest vary between students and even for an individual over time. In a differentiated classroom all children will have equally engaging learning tasks. Engaging does not mean ‘fun all the time’; much mathematical learning involves persistent and sometimes hard work. However a child is likely to be engaged if they can see the point of the activity, is intrinsically motivated because they know they will learn from the activity and know that they will be successful as they have had successful experiences in the past.

How can I plan to differentiate?

1. You could plan to differentiate the content or topic

Content can be described as the knowledge, skills and attitudes we want children to learn. Differentiating content requires that students are involved in assessing their current knowledge since differentiating means building on what children already know. Children who can demonstrate understanding of the concept can proceed directly to applying those concepts to a suitably challenging task. Another way to differentiate content is simply to permit the interested student to accelerate their rate of progress. Therefore this approach includes a gradation of the difficulty of the content to be learned. Differentiating by content means asking the children to assess where they are and to build on what they already know. Therefore there must be several starting points for the lesson and planning must include both ‘what underpins this learning?’ so that difficulties can be addressed and ‘where is this learning going?’ so that children can be offered extension material.

2. You could plan to differentiate the process or activities

Differentiating the processes means varying learning activities or strategies to provide appropriate methods for children to explore the learning. This approach requires allowing the children to know and use alternative paths to manipulate the ideas embedded within the concepts they are learning. Therefore this approach includes support, negotiation and response. Differentiating by activities means using direct instruction, individual work, group work, collaborative learning, peer instruction, mysteries,  mini whiteboards, ICT, graphic organisers etc. etc. so that the children are offered a variety of ways to learn and understand mathematics.

3. You could plan to differentiate the product or outcome

Differentiating the product means varying the complexity of the product or outcome that children create as they demonstrate mastery. The best products require complex thinking or reasoning. Children learning a new mathematical concept could produce a poster explaining the ideas but a more powerful idea can be asking the children to frame their own questions about the concept or what about composing a song, rap or poem instead? It can be motivating for children to be offered choice of product. It can also include such as ideas as group or individual work and the role that children take within groups.

4. You could plan to differentiate by individual learning styles

Varying teaching strategies will make sure that children will, at least sometimes learn in a manner compatible with their own preference but will also expand their repertoire of alternative learning strategies. Thinking about multiple intelligences helps teachers recognise the need to differentiate the activities and environment so that all children are enabled to learn well. Thus the children will need to reflect on how they learn best. Consequently this approach will also include negotiating the way that children learn, whether they learn individually or in groups and the roles that they take in the learning process.

If you want to find out more about learning styles, look in the paper Thinking about Intelligence.

Consider how these four different ways of planning to differentiate could be used in mathematics lessons. Will varying learning styles also mean varying the outcome? Do certain activities suit different content? Investigate how learning number can be made more active.

You may like to record your findings in your Maths Subject Leader file.

More ways to differentiate in the classroom

You can differentiate in the classroom in many ways: here are some suggestions to get you started.


  • are some ways of differentiating more appropriate to some Key Stages than others?
  • can they all be used in the Early Years as well as in Year 6?
  • how can teachers make it clear that they are differentiating if they do not use the three- or four-group approach that the Primary National Strategy made popular?

Add to your earlier thoughts in your Maths Subject Leader file.

What are the principles behind the differentiated classroom?

  • learning experiences are based on assessments of children’s readiness, experiences and interest, which involve the children themselves. Pupils are assessed in a variety of ways, including self-assessment, in order to demonstrate their own learning and growth.
  • content, activities, and products are planned and used in response to the differing needs of varied learners.
  • Teaching and Learning are focused on key concepts, understandings and skills. Clearly established individual and group criteria provide guidance toward success.
  • the teacher and children work together to ensure continual engagement and challenge for each learner. Collaborative learning is the norm.
  • a variety of management strategies are employed, such as learning centres, interest centres, independent study, supportive partnerships, tiered assignments and learning buddies. The aim is always to target instruction to the children’s needs.
  • children will learn best if they understand that they can be successful learners.
  • all people learn best if they are presented with work that is meaningful, interesting, engaging and offers an appropriate challenge and they are allowed to explore until they understand and make meaning for themselves.

Finalise your thoughts on differentiation in mathematics in your Maths Subject Leader file.






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19 May 2016 15:32
When discussing differentiation, the opportunity for children to make mistakes allows for children to fully understand how far they can push themselves within a topic, and therefore could allow to self differentiation where the children choose themselves what level of work they complete, whether it be the easiest or hardest. One issue with this is that children may come to realise they can always choose the easier option, but with strong teaching, this can be avoided by suggesting to children to move to the next level.
By JordanStall
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