An Action Research Project by Helen Reed (Science)
“The problem with mixed ability classes is that there are students with different needs but not always differentiated teaching”
“Differentiated instruction and assessment is a framework or philosophy for effective teaching that involves providing different students with different avenues to learning”
“Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products or the learning environment, the use of on-going assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction.”
Why I chose differentiation for my Action Research Project
I decided to research differentiation in mixed ability classes as a direct result of the great diversity in some of my classes. Last year, I had a year seven class which had a boy with significant learning needs who was just managing to attain a level 2. The same class also had students with the potential to achieve level 7. I struggled to find ideas that would engage, motivate and stretch the whole class at the same time that didn’t take all night to plan!
Through my research I also came to realise the need for differentiation in all of my classes, even my elite triple Science students – despite the majority of them being able to achieve a grade A. Differentiation in this top set of extremely able students was still necessary – to cater for the particular needs of all. Although all of the students were able to access the challenging work I set, as a class they needed different teaching/learning approaches to cater for all of their learning preferences and so maximise their potential.
To summarise the reasons for my choice, I wanted to learn quick and effective ways to differentiate in my Year 7 mixed ability class. However, this quickly extended to the need to differentiate in all of my classes.
What I learnt…
In a large class, differences between students may seem too numerous to count but differentiation works on 3 key areas….
- readiness to learn
- learning needs
- engaging interest
A variety of techniques are needed to cover all three aspects of differentiation…
On-going formative assessment: to continually assess and identify students’ strengths and areas of need.
Recognition of the diversity of learners: The students we teach have diverse levels of expertise with reading, writing, thinking, problem solving etc… On-going assessments allow us to develop differentiated lessons to meet every student’s needs.
Group Work: Students collaborate in pairs and small groups which enables them to engage in meaningful discussions and to observe and learn from each other.
Task: Teachers can offer a choice in the tasks they complete. This is one of the core methods of differentiation, setting different tasks for students of different abilities. An obvious way to do this is to produce different sets of worksheets or exercises depending on ability. However, this makes things difficult for the teacher in terms of delivering the material – how do you distribute the different worksheets without it being painfully obvious to the whole class who gets which sheet? Aside from these social difficulties there is the sheer time it takes to organise and produce such material. So, an alternative method is to produce a single worksheet comprised of tasks which get progressively harder. The more advanced students quickly progress to the later questions whilst the less able concentrate on grasping the essentials.
Choice: Whilst it is a good idea to produce one single differentiated sheet to avoid social difficulties, the sheets still need to be made. When there are perfectly good separate resources already available on hand in the department it seems an awful waste of time to reproduce the same material. So the alternative here is to give the students a choice of resource to work from. In my experience students like to challenge themselves and rarely, if ever choose the lower ability option out of ease.
Outcome: Differentiation by outcome is a technique whereby all students undertake the same task but a variety of results is expected. Instead of all working to one ‘right’ answer the student arrives at a personal outcome depending on their level of ability.
Differentiation in practice
Based on my findings I decided to try out a few new ideas….
Group work/Student choice
My Year 9 class, with levels ranging from level 4-7, were working on a topic about renewable energy resources. After they had learnt about the different resources (through internet research and class discussion) I put them into groups of 3. Each group were given a basic map of an Island with key features such as mountains, coastal regions, exposed open land etc….. As a team they had to decide which type of renewable energy resource would be best to supply the island with electricity. They had to do 3 things…
Draw a map detailing what type of energy resources they would use
Write an account of how the renewable energy resource would produce electricity
Verbally justify their decision
It was up to the group to decide who did which job.
The students were very engaged throughout this whole activity – it led to a whole class debate when the students tried to justify their decisions!
Differentiation by task (i)
By far the quickest and easiest method I frequently adopt is differentiation by task – but with the students choosing their task. The Science department has levelled assessment tasks at levels 4-6 or 6-8. I make both available to students and let them choose. I would say that 95% of the class make the choice that I would have chosen for them. Where a student has opted for the lower ability task as they aren’t very confident I will ask them to try both if they don’t suggest this themselves – which they usually do.
Differentiation by task (ii)
Another favourite approach of mine is to have levelled work set out ready for the students. After learning about a particular topic they will level themselves and then go and choose a level appropriate task. This means they are starting work at a level that is challenging for them – they can then move on and progress to the next level as and when they are ready.
Variety of Teaching/Learning Activities
Whilst teaching about the heart to a year 11 class where the students were working within a narrower range (grade C-A), I chose to experiment with differentiation by teaching/learning activity. Previously, I would have stood at the board and drawn a diagram explaining as I went. This time I did the same thing but then proceeded to go into the lab and show them the parts I had been discussing before challenging the students to dissect and investigate themselves. On returning to the classroom I asked the students to verbally describe what they had seen before labelling a diagram and finally answering exam questions on the heart using a text book. So the students experienced a range of auditory, verbal and kinaesthetic learning.
As an experienced teacher, nothing I read was completely new to me. However, It opened my eyes to the absolute necessity of versatility in the classroom for ALL classes. Differentiation isn’t about making lots of worksheets for all of my classes it’s about alternative teaching and learning styles that include every student. It’s about using the students and the strengths that they have to help each other. It’s about really knowing your students and providing challenging work whether it be by questioning, task, outcome etc.. It really doesn’t matter how you do it because there are so many options but it needs to be done for every child to achieve – although it doesn’t need to keep you up until midnight!
Featured image: Original image ’15 Rule of Great Teaching’ by Sylvia Duckworth, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0