Differentiation in science lessons

Good differentiation in science is hard, perfect differentiation is impossible and quite a lot is probably ineffective and perhaps even damaging to learning. Let me try to explain why.

What does good differentiation look like?

Let’s start by thinking about what good differentiation looks like. Differentiation is about making sure that all students are appropriately challenged. As John Hattie suggests “if you are not challenged, you do not make mistakes. If you do not make mistakes, feedback is useless.” Too hard and students will not get the intrinsic satisfaction of solving a problem. Too easy, and students will get bored and fail to develop. Differentiation is not about lowering expectations of what can be achieved, we just need to vary the approach of how to get there. So how can we appropriately challenge all students in our classroom?

What is not great differentiation?

I don’t think the answer is to give every student an individual worksheet. Blue sheets for students graded C/D and pink sheets for students graded A/B. The reason this doesn’t work is it assumes the teacher has an accurate and complete understanding of where each student is on that topic, before the lesson begins. It also creates unsustainable work for teachers. Equally, asking students to chose the appropriate worksheet is difficult as it relies on them having an accurate idea of their own ability and this is often wrong.

Defining objectives for all, most and some is admitting defeat from the outset and there is no evidence to suggest that taking account of learning styles helps either. Instead let’s raise our expectations and improve our teaching – what is good for ‘low performing students’ is likely to be good for all – Ruth Ashbee writes brilliantly about this here.

Let’s learn together

Another, perhaps more important problem with individualised approaches to differentiation is that we lose the opportunity to learn together; for me, this is the point of school. Children learn when they learn together in communities (Vygotsky) and the more we break up tasks the more we fragment and temper this hugely beneficial way to learn.

How can we do differentiation better?

What’s the solution then? I think the best differentiation is twofold. Firstly, it requires teachers to adapt the teaching in the lesson in real time for individual students – this needs good checks for understanding. If students are finding  the work easy, then the scaffolding is removed. If students are struggling then get modelling and adapt your teaching approach, not your expectations of what can be achieved – differentiation is not about lowering the bar. Secondly, make sure you have a proper understanding of progression for the concept you are teaching; this will allow you to select which of the knowledge and skills that could be taught should be taught and allow you to create tasks that progress in difficulty.

Some practical tips

Differentiation by outcome.

  • When you create tasks make sure they build in difficulty and are not too short. If tasks are short, then it means all students must move at the same rate and this doesn’t give you opportunity to help those who need 1-1 support. Be mindful of falling into the trap of thinking that very able students don’t need to learn the basics first or that low attaining students don’t need to apply/extend/connect their learning.
  • Give students the same task but allow them to take it in different directions. For example, asking students to build and then explain a model of an ionic lattice  can be explored by the students in many different ways and is an excellent way of sharing ideas throughout the class.

Differentiation by questioning

  • Use a range of questions to target specific individuals. For example, if Jack is really understanding chemical formula ask him a question about Cu(OH)2 whilst if Jill is struggling, then CH4 might be more appropriate, for now! Ultimately, both Jack and Jill will need to answer the same questions in the end they may just take slightly different journeys to get there.

Differentiation by feedback

  • If you create the right culture, you can reveal answers as students complete questions. This allows students to know they are on the right track and so can move at a more accelerated and individual pace.
  • Use the white board to teach responsively. For example, if some students are struggling to balance equations, you could get the majority of  students working on a worksheet and then support the rest using the white board.
Further listening and reading