Monthly Archives: January 2015

Differentiation: Just because it can’t be seen, doesn’t mean it’s not there.


I was asked to lead a morning session on Differentiation to a group of professionals on their training day this January. Not the usual symposium of teachers – but 30plus Instructors of engineering apprentices. I wasn’t sure what I could add to their repertoire; reading through the apprentice-statements following their last feedback slips showed the Apprentices cascading immense gratitude, respect and value in what their Instructors do for them, as well as how they do it.

What I did say was that the most effective differentiation is unlikely to be seen. That it’s not directly observable or ‘evidenced’. And that’s because the most effective differentiation takes place inside the teacher’s thought-processes. It’s having as wide a range of possible techniques, strategies and organisational options; knowing the students’ individual traits, characteristics and needs; and making perceptive judgements about what will work, for whom, in what context, to achieve that end.


It’s operating before the lesson in running through a mental fast-forward and anticipating likely obstacles in the road at key points for certain students and deciding how you’ll help them round by adjusting your route. It’s happening within lessons as you assess, evaluate, and think fleet-of-foot and of-mind, suddenly switching to another tack because of what’s just been noticed. It happens after lessons with follow-ups, call-backs, further checks…. in planning for the next session.

And how much of that is ‘seen’ by any external observer who happens to drop by? None. Ok – the ‘effects’ will be there, but it’s unlikely they’ll register because the observer is not aware of you actively making volleys of decisions for what’s most appropriate for this student, that student, and these ones – as  none of that manifests itself to an external observer.

Many of us will have had that lesson where, at the end, we’ve been given the feedback along the lines of “Well…. yes, mainly OK. (pause) But I didn’t see some/any/enough Differentiation taking place….”

My response to that, now, would be:

a) Why would you expect to?

b) What would you require to see to satisfy your need?

c) Have you ‘asked’ me about how I was differentiating (- or are you only opting for visual learning as your preferred style in making your judgements today) ?


Differentiation is critical as a concept and a process. It’s easy for us to generalize and conceive of 28 individuals as an amorphous collective. “I really find that group a nightmare” is a plaintive cry I’ve heard (and occasionally used), particularly from early entrants to the job. We look at the class list and go through, one by one, who – exactly – is ‘a nightmare’. Invariably there are 2 or 3 ‘difficult’ students, 4-6 ‘hangers on’ – and the rest are neutral or positively lovely.

We make challenges for ourselves when we collectivise a class. And as soon as we conceive of its atomisation then it’s incumbent to work the group via the variable options and individual possibilities.

In the session we covered how the choices before us encompass the learning activities we could opt for, the organisation of the classroom, the Instructor-Apprentice interaction choices, study methods, and feedback procedures. A five-course menu of option. There are more – I’m sure.

The best differentiators know their students, know the demands of the learning, understand their subject progress criteria implicitly – and know why they made that decision – at that moment – for that student… from amongst the range of possible options available.

They do it… because they can, because it’s better than not, because it leads to a more satisfying lesson for teacher and taught. They don’t do it because ‘it’s expected’ by a third party, as a bolt-on, or as an exercise in bureaucracy.

And if anyone does come in to observe your teaching, if they want to know how you differentiate – they should ask you how your strategies today have been influenced by your possible options, not complain that its not apparent to them.

‘See’ Differentiation? You can’t. If you could – it would blow your mind.


I read two thought-provoking posts on Differentiation this morning, that got the mind-worms burrowing:

This from Harry Webb @websofsubstance: Seriously, really differentiation doesn’t work

and this from Andy Tharby who gave a great session on it at #TLT14: The dangers of differentiation…and what to do about them


Filed under Differentiation