An easier way: The nine Rs of differentiation

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In writing their new book on differentiation, Daniel Sobel and Sara Alston drew on expert advice to create a list of easy and quick things that would result in real differentiation for most children. The best news of all, they all begin with R...

The most common challenge put to me, from parents to headteachers, both in the UK and internationally, is: “Inclusive classrooms are of course ideal, but in reality how are you supposed to meet the needs of so many different types of children? Don’t they all end up losing out?”

This is a perfectly reasonable and understandable question. However, the assumption that a teacher has to create separate curricula for multiple needs and approaches in the classroom is a myth. It is also utterly impractical. In response, here is my favourite teaching myth:

“Geoffrey Leopold de Ville had been teaching Latin to teenagers for 27 years, in his favourite tweed jacket which he bought while reading Classics at Oxford. He would pace the classroom and regale stories of ancient times and throw out questions to the enthralled students, while he looked out of the window over the lacrosse and rugby pitches. Each November, as the leaves began to fall from the Great Oak by the Planetarium, he recited his favourite passage from Pliny the Elder and would ask the class to pen an essay about it in silence, to be handed in by the end of the lesson. As the students settled down thoughtfully and attentively to the task, he would sit at his old wooden desk at the front reading his favourite passage from The Iliad. At the end of the lesson he barely looked up as they filed past him, placing their neatly written essays on his desk.”

Is this not how the average teacher in the UK experiences their average lesson? I thought not.

There is a current trend of “adapting”, rather than “differentiation” – as is evidenced both in the United States and in Ofsted’s latest School Inspection Handbook (2019).

This is in part because the word “differentiation” has been given new meanings and implications in schools mainly related to endless worksheets and senior leadership team demands.

Sara Alston and I are writing a new book about rethinking SEN and we contend that this approach is a quick route to work overload and stress, and also an ineffective way of teaching.

This article is based on our notes for the chapter about how differentiation for the majority of children is about nothing more than small tweaks, quick interventions, and small pieces of planned support – instead of lots of additional work.

The awfulness of differentiation

Let us be clear: differentiation is ineffective when it is:

  • Unmanageable and overburdens already overly committed and dedicated teachers (this is both unfair and unsustainable).
  • About predictable off-the-shelf differentiated worksheets, not least because this is the path to boredom or even madness.
  • About an entirely parallel curriculum – if anything this unnecessary effort can further fracture superficial divides between children.
  • About the “one size fits all” approach of our Classics teacher Geoffrey Leopold De Ville.

Although differentiation is often thought of as the panacea to all SEN challenges, the execution can be absolutely soul-destroying for child and teacher (or both).

A different way of thinking about differentiation

Sara Alston and I consulted with the highly regarded differentiation expert Wendy Knott, who came up with a list of everything to do with differentiation that is easy and not time-consuming or repetitive – and which would result in real differentiation for most children.

The best news of all, they all begin with R:

  • Room: The learning space needs to reflect and promote differentiation, allowing space for different ways of learning and recognising the different learning needs of different children.
  • Relationships: We all know that relationships are key to successful teaching and these need to underlie differentiation. The adults in the room need to really know their pupils and the different ways of relating to them.
  • Resources: The use of appropriate resources is vital.
  • Relevance: The curriculum and the resources must be relevant to the pupil.
  • Response: At the heart of differentiation is the response that the adults in the room make to each child – and the responses that they subsequently elicit.
  • Recall: This is the key element of effective and differentiated questioning and includes the use of prompts to support children to recall their learning.
  • Retention: This refers to how far children are prompted for independence so that they can retain and apply their learning, rather than becoming prompt-dependent.
  • Resilience: It is vital that children can learn through making errors and develop the understanding and resilience to accept that we learn from mistakes.
  • Robustness: This is linked to the resilience that the pupil is able and willing to demonstrate their efforts regardless, by volunteering answers or engaging during class feedback or discussion.

All of this is more about the “culture” of differentiation rather than thinking about it as a unique act. When you bring these elements together, they create an environment, atmosphere or even a field of inclusion.

Consider the list above and notice how essentially it asks how the child is feeling and engaging, how they are being supported, and how independent they feel comfortable to be.

No worksheet can ever produce the indicators of real learning and belonging that can be developed through an inclusive classroom culture. It is these nine Rs that contain the attitude, approach and small things that make the biggest difference to a child who is desperate to feel included.

An example of this in action...

Jamie, 13, has high-functioning but typical Down’s syndrome, co-occurring with hearing impairment and speech, language and communication difficulties.

  • Room: Jamie has a predictable place in the classroom which is good for his hearing and for social inclusion. He sits with a supportive friend.
  • Relationships: All staff both in and out of the classroom know Jamie. Not only do they understand about his needs and barriers to learning, but they also know his strengths and motivators. They have been shown how to communicate with him effectively.
  • Resources: Jamie has a lesson plan with visual prompts and resources that he uses in every lesson.
  • Relevance: Teachers use Jamie’s strengths and interests to support him to engage in class.
  • Response: Jamie is given opportunities to engage throughout the lesson and share his learning with others.
  • Recall: Jamie uses a visual dictionary to support him to recall key words from each lesson.
  • Retention: Jamie is supported to use visual prompts and, through pre- and over-learning, retain his understanding. Explicit links to his interests help to make this memorable for him.
  • Resilience: Over the years, Jamie has learnt to ask for specific help and to engage in opportunities to work independently.
  • Robustness: The support Jamie has received from adults and his peers has enabled him to continue to engage and see himself as part of the class group.

But what about the learning materials?

We have established that the inclusive classroom is about a cultural adaptation involving the nine Rs. There is a technical discussion to be had around how the materials of the lesson are situated alongside or within the curriculum.

I would argue this is the smaller bit of the differentiation equation and should be tackled with simplicity and ease. Consider the basic four quadrants:

  1. Support.
  2. Process.
  3. Outcome.
  4. Assessment.

We do not have time to go into each element in this one article but I hope it is clear that we are not ignoring the basic idea of differentiating some kind of materials, but instead expanding and re-emphasising where differentiation should lie. Here are two tips to getting this aspect done with ease.

First, check that children expend their energy on the point of the learning.

So, instead of this: Asking all the children to copy administrative information (e.g. the date and title) off the board.

Try this: Providing all the children with a slip to stick into their book with this information on it, so that they can quickly focus on the learning activities, rather the administrative tasks. Consider starting a whole-school discussion about how much of this information is really needed, and cut it to a minimum.

Second, think about how the children can show their learning.

So, instead of this: Expecting all children to show and record their learning through handwritten responses.

Try this: Consider using ICT to record pictures or images of work, or students’ responses, or making a transcription where the child is encouraged to write without worrying about spelling or handwriting and then reads their writing to an adult who records it in a legible form.

Conclusion

Yes, there is a lot more to differentiation than just the above. It represents a serious challenge and burden for many teachers, but I hope this different way of thinking about the inclusive classroom will save teachers some time and stress.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert, which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. You can find all his articles for Headteacher Update on our website via https://bit.ly/3dsSxUN
  • Sara Alston is an experienced SENCO who also works as an SEND and safeguarding consultant and trainer at Inclusion Expert.


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