Rethinking differentiation: getting the most out of questions

“Inspectors reported concerns about Key Stage 3 in one in five of the routine inspections analysed, particularly in relation to the slow progress made in English and mathematics and the lack of challenge for the most able pupils.” (Ofsted, KS3 ‘The Wasted Years’, 2015)


When I trained, the common approach to differentiation was to teach to the middle, stretch the top and support the bottom. The (anecdotal) result? Lots of time-consuming creation of single-use resources, extension tasks that lack rigour or provide ‘more of the same’ or support pathways that remove the complex thinking – and that’s before you have to cater for the range of learning styles in your class! As a trainee teacher in an era when teachers were told ‘Ofsted want progress every 10/15/20 minutes’, it felt like there was a perverse incentive to make the visible learning as easy as possible to show.There were weeks where I’d spend hours making different worksheets for different tables, parallel tasks and card sorts that I’d tell myself I’d use again (but inevitably wouldn’t).

Then I was given the piece of advice that changed my approach to differentiation (and workload): a resource should never take you longer to make than the students to use.

And that opened up some questions:

  • Do I need a worksheet for a 10 minute task?
  • Why am I wasting time printing out tables when students are expected to bring a ruler with them? Ditto sentence starters when they’re on the PowerPoint and I have a VCOP display.
  • How much lesson time have I lost gluing worksheets in? And what would I do with that time if I wasn’t spending it dealing with 17 glue sticks to a class of 30?
  • What if my attempts to empower lower ability students through success have the opposite as they know they’re getting the ‘easier’ task?

…and finally, WHY am I doing all of this, who is it actually for and is this having a measurable impact on student progress?

What if misunderstanding the purpose of differentiation (though there are many depending on your pedagogical persuasion) causes more progress problems than it solves? What if there are teachers out there who simplify their lessons to manage behaviour? What if teachers are so concerned about book scrutiny that they heavily scaffold writing tasks so there’s superficial evidence of progress? What if the major contributor to KS4 progress gaps is not getting a grip on differentiation at KS3?

It’s the WHY, not the what

Sometimes we can spend more time thinking about WHAT students are doing and not WHY they’re doing it. The key to cracking differentiation lies in understanding WHY you’re making certain teaching and learning choices and what the PURPOSE of your decisions are. When I read Bodil’s blog ‘On balance bikes and stabilisers‘ it provided me with a clarity that was long overdue. I’d spent a lot of time coming to the conclusions that when teachers spoke of differentiation, it was often about stabilisers and easy routes through the work. My particular gripe was (and is) writing frames that fast become cloze exercises, but nobody calls them that because we rightly view ‘fill in the gaps’ worksheets as the height of low expectations, but look at some secondary writing frames and the difference is a lot less than you might imagine.

Thinking about the ‘why’ is easier for support; after all you’re differentiating to help student access the curriculum. Differentiating at the top end can feel more challenging but it’s essential to get it right. More able students need a rich diet and an academic curriculum offer. Don’t fob them off by saying that once they’ve finished their work their job is to help weaker students. There’s a time and a place for student leadership, but don’t leave your support to them and neglect their academic development as a result.

Make use of the data available to you

Your school system will have a wealth of information about student needs (e.g. SEND, PP, HAS, EAL, one page summaries, TA strategies etc): use it. It’s useful to remember that Ofsted will want to know what you’re doing for certain students, but I would argue that doing the right thing by each student is the basis of all high-quality teaching. Use the data you’re given and then create your own so you know where every student is and what they need to do to make progress.

Pitch to the top and support underneath

Design lessons to just beyond the scope of the most able student in the class. Then work backwards so you have a clear sense of progression that is open to all students.

Students find it a difficult shift at first but when they begin succeeding on challenging work, it’s more empowering for them.

Use questions as your balance bike

Screenshot (33)A well asked question to a particular student stretches, challenges, supports and personalises the learning. Well structured, academic dialogue through questioning can engage the whole class and take a group of students on a journey. Questions can be used to structure lessons, discussions, independent work and essay responses.



Examples of using questions to support and stretch thinking

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šThinking more specifically about task structure and questioning for progression will reduce the time spent on single-use resources, empower students by avoiding the pitfall of low-expectations and promote a culture of high academic expectations.


A reduced version of the ideas in this blog was presented at #AGSInspire TeachMeet, Middlesbrough on 23rd February.



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