Children differ from one another in many different ways and many of these ways are relevant to their work as pupils in school. Therefore, if the education system is to serve all pupils well, it must respond to relevant differences. Geoff Petty (2004) defines differentiation as an approach to teaching that attempts to ensure that all pupils learn well, despite their many differences. So, it is basically covered by catch phrases, such as, “coping with differences”, “learning for all” and “success for all”.
There are strong reasons for differentiation and teachers are well aware of these. For instance, they are aware of the fact that:
All pupils are different
There are no two pupils who learn in identical ways
A good learning environment for one pupil is not necessarily good for another.
Most teachers practise a mixture, three elements, namely, planning, teaching and assessment, in their everyday interactions with pupils. In differentiated teaching the essential curricula concepts may be the same for all students but the complexity of the content, learning activities and/or products varies,, so that all students are challenged and no student is frustrated (Enhanced Learning Centre, 2006).
Differentiation is not always feasible. For instance, there is a higher demand of differentiation in mixed-ability groups. I have found out that in such groupings, there may be quite a wide range of abilities where teachers need to adapt the lessons to match the interests of talented pupils as well as those of pupils with learning difficulties. Kutnic and Hudgkinson (2006) in their research mention that more support (for learning) is required; otherwise disruptive pupils in these groupings make it difficult for other pupils to learn.
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Adding more to this, Scott and Spencer (2006) in their article argue that, based on their research, teachers appear to be more concerned with maintaining routine in classrooms than with matching instructions to individual differences. However, in my opinion, despite the complexities required by differentiated teaching and the time taken for its preparation, most teachers realise the importance of teaching-learning interactions and invest their efforts for a variety of reasons; firstly,, a dedicated teacher wishes to ensure that all pupils in her/his charge with different abilities receive the best possible quality of education. Therefore, it is essential to match teaching approaches and learning activities with the differing needs of individuals.
Apart from the fact that at an individual level there is a responsibility towards pupils to provide the best quality education possible, at the school level too teachers are expected by the governors and head-teachers to differentiate their teaching to maximise the learning outcome. However, at a wider level, it is an expectation of OFSTED and Subject Teaching Associations that school and individual teachers will differentiate teaching to provide all pupils with access to the curriculum. Thus, differentiation is one aspect of the quality of teaching, which is examined during school inspections (Revell, ed. 1995, p49).
In the first part of my study, I have summarized methods of approaching differentiation and the possible difficulties in applying them in the classroom. The approaches are presented in three broad headings, namely, content, process and products. In the next part, I want to find out the effectiveness of specific differentiation strategies and their difficulties in science lessons taught to mixed-ability groups.
How to differentiate?
Students differ in three ways: readiness, interest and learning styles. Hall, Strangeman and Mayer in their article (2003) insist that when teachers differentiate, they should do it in response to a pupil’s readiness, interest, and/or learning profile. Readiness refers to the skill level and background knowledge of the pupil. Interest refers to topics that motivate the pupil and finally, a pupil’s learning profile includes pupils’ learning styles (i.e., a visual, auditory, tactile, or kinaesthetic learner), grouping preferences (i.e., individual, small group, or large group), and environmental preferences (i.e., lots of space or a quiet area to work). Teachers can differentiate based on one factor or a combination of different factors. Tomlinson (2006) states that teachers should persist in developing a greater understanding of each student’s readiness to succeed in designated content goals, to enhance individual academic growth, interest that might connect with content goals to enhance motivation, and preferred modes of learning to enhance efficiency of learning.
There is a wide range of differentiation strategies which enable teachers to match their teaching to individual abilities. It is essential to know that using only one strategy (e.g. providing extra worksheets for more able students) would not help to create a differentiated learning environment, but rather, a range of strategies should be used to maximise the learning outcome of the whole class (Q10).
Revell (ed. 1995) suggests that differentiation approaches can be grouped into three stages:
Planning (e.g. resource preparation)
In- class ( e.g. questioning)
Follow-up ( e.g. marking)
“These three stages form a cycle which reinforce each another and build into very effective differentiation. Where one of these stages is missing some differentiation is achieved but the potential is not maximised” (Revell, ed. 1995).
Therefore, effective differentiation occurs only when teachers plan their lessons based on individual needs, manage to apply their planned strategies in the class and give feedback information to pupils about their achievements to advance individual learning in subsequent lessons. Westwood (2001) also suggests that differentiation approaches can be grouped into strategies used to modify the content, the process and the products of each lesson. As a trainee teacher with not much experience, I have managed to differentiate most of my lessons based on each of these approaches. However, I think, in practice, only when teachers become more proficient in using these approaches, all these three approaches of differentiation can occur in one lesson for some pupils, especially the more able ones.
Differentiating for content:
Through planning the lesson, the nature of the learning tasks will be at different levels, based on students’ abilities, with accessible and appropriate resources being prepared individually. Westwood (2001) suggests that differentiation in curriculum content means that students with learning difficulties are required to cover less material in the lesson, whilst in the case of gifted students, the reverse would be true. However, Hall (2002) argues that the content of instructions should address the same concepts for all students, but should be adjusted by the degree of complexity to match the diversity of learners in the classroom (Hall, 2003). In my opinion, to be fair to all pupils and to also follow the national curriculum, the core content should be kept the same, although the pupils who are more able should be challenged and motivated by more complex concepts.
In order to differentiate by modifying the curriculum content, the scheme of work should be developed as an effective central document, which helps teachers plan for differentiation in the classroom. A detailed differentiated scheme of work helps teachers to reduce the amount of time spent for differentiation in their lessons. However, in my opinion, even the best differentiated schemes of work are not necessarily the most suitable for all classes that a teacher may teach and, hence, certain adjustments should be made for each class, based on pupils’ abilities.
At the next stage, planning for each lesson is an effective way of facilitating differentiation by varying the content. An effective lesson plan includes appropriate learning objectives, learning activities and resources (worksheets, etc), which match pupils’ developing abilities and, in turn, determines differentiated teaching. Revell (ed. 1995) defines Lesson planning as the process of detailed planning that occurs between the end of the last lesson and the start of the next. His statement justifies the importance of assessment of pupils’ learning and interest in order to consider various aspects of learning that should be implemented in the next lesson.
The methods used to make available resources more accessible to pupils through appropriate language and effective presentations, are another way of approaching differentiation in teaching. Many teachers see the preparation of resources, such as concept cartoons or question sheets, and so on, as an important and feasible differentiation strategy, by making the work appropriate to a range of abilities or by modifying the language level and making the content more accessible (Revell, ed.1995, p36). Shorter instructions in a simple and direct language, an open layout and use of more illustrations, cartoons or graphs are possible strategies that minimise reading problems and challenge and interest the pupils, as well.
Differentiating for teaching and learning process
This type of modification covers the possible changes that may be made to the way teaching occurs in the classroom, in order to achieve the learning objectives. The way students are grouped, the questions asked during the lesson or the intervention of teachers in the learning of individual pupils, are some strategies used in the classroom to promote differentiated teaching. I found tiered assignments a good practice of differentiated learning process, as it challenges pupils’ readiness.
Changing the learning process to suit the various pupils in the class as well as managing the class by engaging all the pupils, is the best approach. Motivating and challenging students to remain on the task can be one of the most difficult events in the teaching and learning process. However, by knowing the pupils’ abilities, it is easier for teachers to keep them on the task with differentiated activities that match their ability levels, interests, background, etc.
“Well differentiated teaching presents pupils with tasks which are at a level at which they can achieve and gain satisfaction and there is less likelihood of disruptive behaviour through frustration with work” (Revell, ed.1995, p47).
Differentiating for products
Experts suggest that teachers should change their expectation of what pupils produce as their work. Westwood (2001) says that what students produce relates to the outcomes from the learning process; such as a tangible product like written work, which is evidence of learning outcomes. In this case, pupils may be asked to produce work in a format different from the others. For example, some adaptations may be made within the assessments, to make it easier for some individuals. However, the debate for modifying the assessment tasks and grading, such as modification of test formats, time allowance, etc, focuses on fairness:
“Is it fair to students who do not have learning difficulties or disabilities, if we give good grades to lower achievers simply based on the fact that they have tried hard and to encourage them?” (Westwood, 2001, p.8).
It is essential for teachers to establish the fact that each student is a unique individual and has different learning needs. However, the fairness of judgement in marking and grading can bring about a lot of complexities into teaching, when teachers are not sure how to grade a piece of work produced by students with different abilities, whilst, at the same time, being fair to the remaining ones. Westwood (2001) suggests some ways of modification of grading to take care of learning difficulties, which includes using satisfactory or unsatisfactory as the yardstick for grading subjects or recording results in numerical form (e.g. Achievement 66%, Effort 90%).
In my teaching experience in school X, teachers were supposed to provide two grades for every subject, one of which represented the effort while the other grade represents the achievement (e.g. A2: A for achievement, 2 for effort). I found this very helpful for grading students’ effort. In addition, their achievement enabled me to mark the students’ work based on their abilities and on their meeting the teacher’s expectations (Q28).
Some difficulties with differentiation:
Differentiation enables all pupils to participate successfully and on equal terms in the curriculum. Nowadays, the importance of “education for all” is being realised in many schools in developed countries and most of them have practically used strategies to engage all pupils and also address their individual needs, at the same time. However, in reality it has never seemed to be an easy task to meet the diverse needs of all students, at the same time. I have found that adaptation of curriculum, modification of resources and adjustment of teaching methods are very difficult, when it comes to applying them all in a full-size class. Westwood (2001,) in his article states:
As long ago as 1985, the Department for Education and Science (DES) in Britain called for a broad, balanced, differentiated and relevant school curriculum (DES, 1985, p.88). The DES said what is taught and how it is taught needs to be matched to pupils’ abilities and aptitudes. But the DES at least admit that even very experienced teachers do not find it easy to match the widely differing needs and capabilities of individual students with appropriate objectives, methods or materials.
As has been mentioned before, differentiation mainly occurs in terms of the content, the processes and the products of each lesson, there being some strong criticisms and complexities for each approach.
Difficulties with differentiating of content
Changing the curriculum content, namely, making it easier for students with learning difficulties and adding extra work for more able students would simply cause a learning gap between students.”This is an example of the well- known Mathew effect in education, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer”(Stanovich, 1986 in Scott 2001). Moreover, this method can be criticised under principles of equity and social justice, where students with less ability may get fewer opportunities to improve and perform better.
Westwood in his article (2001) argues that, based on classroom research, students do not like to be given easier tasks, nor do they like using modified materials that make them stand out as “different” from the other students in the classroom, although they still acknowledge the requirement of extra help and appreciate it; in general, students with less ability prefer to get more help from the teacher to do the same task as everyone else, rather than completing easier tasks without help.
Therefore, even though teachers believe that making changes to the content of the lesson would help to meet the needs of individuals, they still have difficulties in dealing with other aspects of it.
Difficulties with changing teaching and learning process:
The teaching and learning process changes when teachers change the way of grouping pupils, the participation of students in their lessons and their teaching techniques (Q25). Teachers have found these modifications easier than changing the curriculum content (Westwood 2001). However, even these strategies have their own difficulties which can lead to teachers struggling with lesson planning. For example, putting certain students in the same groups over a long period of time would not always have the same outcome. Learning styles and interests differ among students and even individuals after a period of time. Therefore, a constant observation of these changes in all pupils must be considered and be used towards regrouping the students, which can be a time-consuming task for teachers. In addition to that, Irujo (2004) argues that while many teachers are quite good at assessing students’ performance through observation during learning activities, very few are able to convert these observations into data that can be used to diagnose students’ preferred learning styles and strategies, strengths and weaknesses, and learning needs. Thus, teaching skills and experiences are quite important in knowing pupils and their learning styles.
In addition, through changes in the process of teaching, teachers must aim at challenging the more able students, as well as engaging the less able ones, to ensure that all students make progress through the curriculum. However, in my opinion, teachers with less teaching experience are less likely to deliver an outstanding differentiated lesson; having more efficient structures, giving more frequent feedback, differentiated assessments and other strategies of differentiation that suit every single student’s needs, is something to be achieved by practice and years of experience is needed for achieving this. Scott and Spencer (2006) mention that even among skilled teachers, gaps exist between beliefs, skills and practice and in planning and making adaptations for each student.
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Difficulties with differentiating products
Westwood (2001) believes that changing the expectation of what students produce, in terms of the amount and quality of work, does not give an idea of differentiation, as in any case, students do produce different amounts and varying qualities. In addition, accepting lower quality work from certain students can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy: “the student produces less and less and we in turn expect less and less from them” (Westwood, P. 2001, p9). He argues that it is easier to differentiate the expectation of products in some subject areas than in others. For example, it is more feasible to differentiate a history essay produced by students than a solved physics question. In mathematics and science, it is more difficult to vary the way students demonstrate their understandings and skills. It is also important to ensure that this method of differentiation does not offer a soft option, whereby students consistently manage to avoid tasks which they do not like to complete.
In practice, I have found that differentiating pupils’ products is more difficult than differentiating content or learning process. Teachers should be very considerate in writing comments and marking pupils’ work when it comes to differentiation. A comment showing over-satisfaction can give pupils a wrong impression of their understanding, whereas a dry comment or grade of underestimation can disappoint pupils and deter them from producing good quality work.
Differentiation in mixed ability science lessons
Secondary schools use grouping strategies as a means of addressing two principle concerns: the raising of achievement in core subjects and the promotion of inclusivity in their schools. Although, there are many arguments against ability settings, researches show that the trend is setting more towards dealing with national curriculum demands (Qualter, 1995). However, most science departments do not set their year seven pupils until year eight.
During my experience, I have found teaching mixed ability groups more challenging than teaching settled groups. In settled groups, it is easier for teachers to predict the next step and prepare for it as they tend to see the class as a homogenous group. But, in mixed ability groups, apart from the fact that classroom strategies are very varied, differentiation plays a more important role in anchoring learning. Qualter, McGuigan and Russell (1995) in their article mention that teachers teaching mixed ability classes worried that they tend to teach to the middle. Clearly, in such situations higher ability pupils may get bored and frustrated by the level of challenge when it can be too difficult for less able pupils. Therefore, even though there may be a huge load of work to match each lesson to individual needs in mixed ability groups, a “mixed diet” should be used to ensure that: “the quiet or shy pupil is taken into account” (Poslethwaite, 1993, page 79).
Science lessons can be differentiated to allow students to explore topics of interest, expand their research skills, and receive instruction on discrete science and inquiry skills (Houser, J, 2004). In order to implement differentiation, teachers should think of ways to determine pupils’ readiness. They need to know about the pupils’ background knowledge and recognise their interest. In addition, identifying the pupils’ learning styles helps teachers to teach differentiated lessons which meet each individual’s needs. Postlethwaite (1993) also agrees that before we consider ways in which we might respond, as science teachers, to the individual differences amongst our pupils, and especially to those differences which relate to learning, we should take time to analyse exactly how pupils differ.
Teachers can differentiate content, process, and product among pupils. Differentiation of content refers to a change in the material being learnt by a pupil. For example, if the classroom objective is for all pupils to balance chemical equations, some of the pupils may learn to balance a simpler equation, while others may learn to balance more complicated chemical equations. Differentiation of process refers to the way in which pupils access material. One pupil may have to use the text book as her/his information resource, while another student collects information from the web. Differentiation of product refers to the way in which pupils demonstrate what they have learnt. For example, to demonstrate understanding of formation of seasons, one pupil may write an explanation, while another may draw a diagram.
There are various differentiation strategies that can be used in science lessons. However, during my placements I have found the following strategies most commonly used by teachers in science lessons:
Preparing differentiated resources
Core and options
These strategies mainly provide differentiation by task and differentiation by teacher intervention is also exercised, while this is being employed. Piggot (2002) believes that differentiation by task allows an observer to see differentiation in action more easily.
Objective and research question
In light of all the above considerations, the objective of this research has been that of investigating the effectiveness of the most-used differentiation strategies for mixed ability classes and their difficulties in science lessons. My aim is to evaluate and analyse the advantages and disadvantages of these strategies and to find out how pupils in a class with a wide range of abilities respond to each strategy.
To examine the most common differentiation strategies employed in science lessons, in a row of three lessons, I used one strategy at a time and devised my lesson based on that strategy, applying it to a mixed ability group of year seven pupils. I decided to carry out my investigation within a mixed ability group as it gave me the opportunity to investigate each strategy’s effectiveness on a wider range of abilities.
I used two methods of collecting data:
Surveys: an anonymous questionnaire (appendix 1) was designed to outline the success of each strategy from the pupils’ point of view. They were asked to rate the extent to which they found each lesson, in terms of their interest and learning.
Interviews: I interviewed the class teacher who had the experience of working with the same group and who had also observed my lessons. I asked for her opinions on the effectiveness of strategies that I had used in each lesson.
The participants in my research were from a year seven class with 26 pupils. The pupils represented a wide range of abilities including one statemented pupil, one pupil with EAL, three pupils on school action and eight gifted and talented pupils. The class teacher, Mrs LW, who observed me during the lessons, was the other participant.
Moreover, in order to ensure that I had considered different aspects of each lesson beforehand, I observed an experienced teacher teaching the same topics before starting my research.
Lesson one: How does energy get transferred?
Differentiation strategy: differentiated circuses
In this lesson, groups of pupils circulated around different experiments and investigated the energy transfer for each apparatus at different stations. Pupils were given a sticker with their group number as they walked into the class. Therefore, the grouping of pupils was done randomly in order to keep the mixed ability groupings the same for all three lessons. Groups were asked to move to the next station after four minutes. After thirty minutes of a whole class activity, each pupil was supposed to choose three pieces of apparatus and, in her/his own words, write down the energy transfer for them.
Through this method, differentiation is promoted by content and it involves classifying activities on the basis of the evenness of demand. The advantage of this method is that pupils have the opportunity to undertake various activities and learn the content from the one that best matches their abilities. It also helps pupils to learn to work as a team and learn from one another as well as from their teacher. During this lesson, I found most of the pupils on task and engaged with the activities, but one of the boys with ASD did not get involved with the activities at all. I tried to encourage him to undertake the activities but he refused. So, I had to give him a worksheet which he could complete on his own.
Hence, though pupils’ reflection in the class can be beneficial to everyone, it is important to be precise on timing and encourage pupils to finish their task within the allotted time. Therefore, there is enough time for pupils to do a short demonstration or presentation when all pupils can get an overview of the whole topic. Piggott (2002) argues that this method of differentiation is often rushed, as there are too many activities to be done in an allotted time. “Therefore, the opportunities for pupils to reflect on, and teachers to challenge, learning are lost” (Piggott, 2002, p67). Even though I had observed another teacher doing the same lesson and had planned my lesson based on a short explanation of energy transfer and then asked the pupils to carry out the investigations, I ran out of time and only managed to get 3 pupils to give feedback regarding their findings to the class. Again, this could be caused by the lack of experience, but the class teacher too mentioned the difficulty of tracking time when using this strategy.
Although such circuses are usually best at the introduction of the topic, there are not many teachers who take the opportunity to devise lessons based on this particular strategy as the class management demands are considerably high, said Mrs LW.
On the other hand, I found most of the pupils well engaged with tasks where they could practice and examine the content through different levels of complexity. Even though the task was a teacher-managed task, pupils still had the option to choose the way they learned the objectives.
Lesson two: what happens to energy?
Differentiation strategy: core and options
In this lesson, the principles of conservation of energy were introduced and pupils learnt how sankey diagrams can represent energy transfer. Then, as the main activity, pupils were given worksheets with graded energy transfer examples to choose from and represent the conservation of energy for their chosen example. The pupils were supposed to represent and explain, in pairs, the conservation of energy for the first two examples, which were set as the core activities. They then had the opportunity to branch out to harder or easier questions according to their abilities. They also had the option to demonstrate their understanding by drawing a sankey diagram, using wooden cubes to represent sankey diagrams or writing to explain the energy transfer in their own words. Pupils had 15 minutes to carry out the task and then they had to represent their findings to the rest of the class.
The core and option method offers straightforward opportunities for differentiation by task as well as opportunities for differentiation through teacher intervention (Revell. Ed, 1995, p67). The advantage of this strategy is its flexibility which allows it to be used in a wider range of topics. Adding more, pupils were more or less familiar with the strategy and it was easily introduced. Almost all the pupils were on task and tried to keep up with the timing. Piggott (2002) in his article describes the method as a pupil-managed task. I found the pupils quite motivated and engaged as they had the opportunity to choose what level they wanted to work on. The most satisfying part of this lesson, for me, was to find the statemented pupil, who has very low motivation in science lessons, well engaged with the task with the use of cubes to explain each example.
However, there are some drawbacks for this method. First of all, there were a few pupils who preferred working at a lower level either to get their task done more quickly or had too low a confidence to carry out the higher level activities. Therefore, there was a need for monitoring and guiding the pupils to ensure that each pupil was suitably challenged and worked at the right level. In addition, in more complex programmes of options, pupils’ awareness of their own needs and abilities is totally essential, when classroom management role becomes a lot more demanding.
In my interview with the class teacher after the lesson, she mentioned the engagement of pupils and their interest in having the opportunity to choose what they should be doing. Although she found the strategy very demanding for the teacher, she rated it as an “excellent way of differentiation”.
Lesson three: What are our energy resources?
Differentiation strategies: preparing differentiated resources
In this lesson, pupils learnt about the formation of fossil fuels and renewable energy resources. As the main activity, pupils were given worksheets to complete. For this activity, three sets of worksheets were prepared with different levels of complexity. Usually, in mixed ability classes, teachers use one worksheet for pupils with less ability, one for the average ones and one for the more able pupils. However, in order to find out whether it is possible to make differentiation easier in terms of preparing resources for a mixed ability group, I decided to use the most complex worksheet as an extension task for average/ higher ability pupils who would complete their main worksheet early. Therefore, pupils were organised into groups of lower ability pupils and average/ higher ability pupils. They were also told that there were extension worksheets for those who finished their main worksheet soon. Thus, both groups of pupils had the opportunity to ask for a more challenging worksheet and I had the opportunity to analyse the pupils’ reaction to the extension tasks. Out of 26 pupils, 9 were given the less complex worksheet and the rest of the class had to complete the more demanding worksheet.
During the activity, I had to use a lot of encouragement and motivation to make sure that everyone was on task, as I think worksheets are the least favourite science activities among pupils. However, I assume that this was partly caused by the low level of challenge which the pupils with greater ability faced. So, although designing and preparing different worksheets could be very time consuming, I don’t think that lowering the amount of preparation in this case would work.
Most of the pupils with lower ability were quite engaged with
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