In this session, Emily is going to share some practical strategies for differentiation.
She started by telling a story about her son James who has been living in France for 7 years (with her), he learnt French at school and speaks so well that a lot of his teachers don’t realise he isn’t French. He is at secondary school. He takes an EFL class (!). In September, he had a rubbish day. The teacher said all the students were all A1 and by the year would all be A2 – he didn’t want to be singled out but he was annoyed that the teacher didn’t expect something correct for him. Emily started to think about what she would have done if she were that teacher and about other learner differences that she might have to deal with e.g. these:
Interesting but also overwhelming. How to address these differences that affect learning is a difficult area. Early in her research into this, Emily came across a quote. “Differentiation is simply attending to the learning needs of a student or group of students rather than the more typical pattern of teaching the class as though all individuals in it were basically alike” Carol Tomlinson.
We can differentiate in different ways
- by content
- by outcome
- through support
- with attitude
Imagine you have worked out through observing learners, some are quicker than others. You might want to group them and give them different length of texts to do but the same task. All three (for example) texts need to be interesting. All tasks need to be equally valid and interesting. You take away the texts before learners are regrouped and answer the questions. Avoid “busy” tasks, make it something relevant and related to what they have been doing, they should be extended. Be careful with your groupings. You need to be quite subtle about it. Group learners at the beginning according to what you want to do with them, using name cards.
E had been teaching secondary students who had been reading about predictions and were going to practice giving predictions using a fortune teller. Her instruction was, you have five minutes to write 8 sentences (to go inside the fortune teller). Not everybody managed to do that. Emily got the student who had only written two to copy them 4 times so she could still take part in the drill (using the FT). A better way to do the task would be to do an open task. “Write as many sentences as you can in five minutes” so that the strong ones will feel motivated to do more and the weaker ones still succeed.
Giving students choice is good – choose which questions you want to answer, choose how many… Enables self-differentiation according to abilities.
Going back to Elsa (who only wrote 2 sentences) – maybe she didn’t have any ideas, maybe she was tired, maybe she saw Eloise who had written 8 already and gave up/felt demotivated. To support her: generating ideas together before being set loose on a task is important. Conferencing – go round, feed in ideas and vocabulary. Provide scaffolding. Is it differentiation if you give everybody the support? Yes as students can choose how much of it to access.
Process language – really interesting because if you get teachers to try and activity before you do it in class, you will find a lot of stalling techniques, collaborative language etc. The students need this language to do the task so feed it in first.
However, none of these things will work if you go into the classroom with the wrong attitude. E.g. saying these things:
These imply a fixed idea about learners, a static state, which isn’t what we should be going for. Instead:
Differentiation is about having an open, enquiring attitude to learners, making subtle but important changes to our teaching and reflecting on what we do. If we make an effort to think about individual learner differences, then it gives everyone including the teacher a possibility to learn.
In planning, as much time should be spent thinking through as making things. It’s necessary time spent.