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Masters in Educational Practice: Professional learning


Research informing practice


Effective differentiation

This section focuses specifically on how practitioners can differentiate and what research tells us about effective practice. Differentiation is a matter of accommodating the different needs of learners. It should not be a bolt on to lessons, but integrated in everyday practice. Figure 3.2.1 gives examples of strategies used by many practitioners.

Figure 3.2.1 Differentiation strategies
Figure 3.2.1 Differentiation strategies

Learning objectives

Learning objectives can be written for different groups of learners. Many practitioners use expressions such as ‘All learners should be able to . . . ’, ‘Most should . . . ’ and ‘Some should . . . ’


Tasks can be varied according to learners’ prior knowledge or interests. Most schools set independent projects, which enable learners to demonstrate what they know, understand and can do. Open-ended tasks, challenges, quizzes and games can be used for those learners who complete and understand tasks ahead of time. These additional tasks or ‘extension activities’ should enable learners to apply what they have learnt in new contexts, rather than be seen as ‘more of the same’. 


Questioning should develop learners’ higher-order thinking skills such as evaluation, synthesis and creativity. Effective practitioners use a range of questions to extend thinking, for instance:

  • Who do you think . . . ?
  • Why would s/he be . . . ?
  • How do you know . . . ?
  • What do you think . . . ?
  • What if . . . ?

It is common for teachers to start off lessons by asking inclusive questions to establish a shared understanding before asking more demanding questions for the more able. A novel approach is to reverse the process by pre-teaching those who might struggle with the main ideas so that they start the lesson on a ‘more even footing’ and are better equipped to contribute.

Dialogic teaching

Dialogic teaching describes the use of talk to advance learners’ thinking and understanding. The emphasis is on holding conversations in which learners justify what they say, challenge each other’s views and engage with subject matter. Professor Robin Alexander (2008) introduced dialogic teaching to move beyond the typical interaction when a teacher asks a question, receives a response, praises and moves swiftly on. He argues that this traditional approach restricts children’s talk and understanding. Instead he suggests that teachers talk alongside children as they approach tasks, sharing and building on ideas and considering alternatives. 


Outcomes can be varied in terms of what is expected at the end of lessons. Hence although all learners in the class might follow the same activity, such as writing an email, drawing an object or listening to a piece of music, the teacher does not expect the same results. Critics claim that this is a ‘soft’ option when differentiating and risks losing the less able learners who might struggle with language or conceptual understanding.


Resources come in many shapes and sizes, from specific technologies designed for learners with additional learning needs to those prepared by teachers themselves, such as vocabulary lists or visual cues. Additional adults, such as teaching assistants, are often deployed in supporting less able learners. In some instances this is because of specific learning difficulties. However, there are times when it is best for the teacher to work with the less able learners for concentrated periods and for the teaching assistant to support the more able learners. As a general principle, it is important that teacher time is distributed fairly and that groups of learners are not always delegated to a teaching assistant.


Time can be used flexibly by setting timed targets for different learners or, on occasions, by allocating more time for teacher support to specific groups.


Grouping according to ability, interest, task or often friendship, has long operated in the primary school. Supporters of group work refer to such learning gains as social skills, critical and creative thinking, motivation and independence. Group work can be effective in tasks that require collaboration, such as team sport, music, or the production of a play. Group work is based very much on social learning theory (Bandura, 1977) in which individuals learn from each other when interacting with their environment.

Research by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (Blatchford, 2005; Baines et al., 2008) found that effective group work is both possible and desirable. Its Social Pedagogic Research into Group-work (SPRinG) project reported gains in sustained interactions and higher-level discussion, in both primary and secondary classes. The success of group work hinges on the clarity of rules and procedures for working together, such as allocating roles and setting group targets. In other words, expectations and management matter. You cannot simply put children in groups and assume they will stay on-task. One effective approach to group work is reciprocal reading, first developed in New Zealand in the 1980s. It supports children who can decode but do not fully understand what they read. Each child takes on one of the following roles.

  • A questioner – asks questions to help the group, e.g. who, what, where, when, how.
  • A clarifier – stops the group to check understanding of a word, phrase, idea.
  • A predictor – uses cues to help figure out what will happen next, e.g. ‘I imagine…’; ‘I think this will…’; ‘I wonder if…’.
  • A summariser – tells the group the key ideas not the details, using phrases such as ‘First,…, Next,…, Then…’; ‘The story takes place in…’; The key facts are…’.
  • The big boss – allocates roles, invites each reading, makes sure all join in. 

This approach focuses on developing key reading skills of questioning, predicting, clarifying and summarising.

In deciding upon group work, a key starting point is the intended learning outcomes and whether group work is the best approach for all learners to achieve these. The simple fact that children sit together does not mean that they learn together. Group work has a strong tradition, particularly in the primary school, but can be problematic as a form of differentiation. Critics of group work raise the following pointers.

  • Group work camouflages inactivity and is not always productive – how much time is wasted with children not on task?
  • Group work is distracting – is it more likely that learners will lose concentration when sitting with others than working on their own?
  • Group assessment is unfair – why should conscientious individuals be penalized for the underperformance of ‘passengers’?
  • Group work does not help the more able and talented – if teachers use mixed ability groups, how does this stretch the more able ones?
  • Group work is often used as a default way of organising learners – why? If a colleague decided not to use group work, what would you say? What research do you know of that shows clearly group work is worth it?
  • Group work is popular in primary schools – if group work is so important, why isn’t it used more widely in secondary schools?
  • Group work in reality often means single sex pairings – how well does this prepare learners for later life?

Strategies for differentiation used by mainstream teachers may not prove effective, for instance, if learners fall behind their peers because they have missed a lot of schooling. In such cases, additional interventions are needed, such as booster classes. 

Some schools decide to set children according to ability. However, research suggests that this exacerbates inequalities in achievement because the more experienced, qualified and better-prepared teachers tend to work with the higher sets where they cover more material at a faster pace. Learners in low sets tend to face more disruptions from misbehaving peers and less opportunity to discuss.

That said, mixed-ability teaching also presents challenges, including ensuring that high achievers are sufficiently stretched (Gamoran, 2002). Streaming, where learners are separated for most of the curriculum according to their performance in a general assessment, is also popular among some schools. One of the most comprehensive literature reviews on the subject shows that streaming and setting compared with mixed ability teaching have no significant effect, either positive or negative, on average learner achievement (Sukhnandan and Lee, 1998).

Activity 3.2.1

Reflect on the criticisms mentioned in Figure 3.2.2. Think about your own experience and note possible benefits of group work to rebalance the debate.

Figure 3.2.2. The pros and cons of group work as a form of differentiation
Figure 3.2.2. The pros and cons of group work as a form of differentiation

The popular education writer Tom Bennett (2013), in his book Teacher Proof, says that he is not against group work per se and that at times he has found it useful. But he does not like the insistence that group work is the best approach to develop higher-order thinking skills. Read and reflect on what Bennett says. Try to find one very reliable piece of research that counters his criticism that group work is ‘failing better, together’.

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