Resource 4: Differentiating work
Background information / subject knowledge for teacher
Differentiating work for students of varying abilities
As you know, each pupil has different abilities. There can also be a significant difference in age between the oldest and youngest pupil in the class. Some students will learn more effectively by reading a book, some by carrying out a practical activity and some by listening to and absorbing spoken instructions. Some will understand the work very easily, some will take more time. Some will work very quickly through any task you set, some will work slowly. It is impossible for you as a teacher to take all the differences into account all the time, but there are things that you can do to support individuals within a class.
If you have a class of 40 or more pupils this might sound like a daunting task. There are two important things that you need to do to be able to effectively cater for everyone in your class:
- Know your students. You need to give them opportunities to work in groups and listen to their conversations; you need to mark their written work; you need to ask questions of individuals in class and you need to encourage them to ask you questions if they don’t understand or just want to know more. When you know who understands easily, who finds science difficult, who likes to talk, who likes to write, who likes to draw and who likes doing experiments, you will be in a much better position to help individuals.
- Know your subject. It is unrealistic to expect everyone to remember and understand everything that you do. Students who find science difficult will be overwhelmed if you try to tell them everything. You need to break each topic down into simple steps and make sure that everyone understands the most important ideas. You also need to know how to challenge students who have grasped the basic ideas.
You can cater for the range of abilities within your group in two main ways:
Differentiating by outcome
This involves setting some questions that get progressively more difficult. Everyone gets as far as they can. Alternatively, you can set open-ended tasks in which students demonstrate what they can do. This also enables you to give them a choice about how they present their work, which can be very motivating. You may find that the degree of support that you need to provide to individuals, pairs or small groups within the class varies significantly.
Differentiating by task
For this, you set different students, or groups of students, different tasks. For example, in a practical session some pupils could have instructions provided for them in written form and some could have them in diagram form and some could have a combination of both.
You could provide a set of questions that cover the basic ideas that you judge that everyone needs to understand and a set that are more challenging. The students who you expect to get a grade A could be given the more challenging ones.
There is a lot of research that suggests that different students prefer to learn in different ways. The three learning styles that are more commonly referred to are visual, audio and kinesthetic, i.e. some students prefer diagrams and pictures, some learn best by listening and some prefer to be able to do things.
As a teacher you cannot be expected to cater for all the students all the time, but a good teacher will make sure that their lessons contain activities that cover all three learning styles.
There is a tendency to expect students to do a lot of listening. You should make sure that your students also get to do experiments or activities that involve moving around the room and talking about science. Encourage them to use mind maps and diagrams or pictures to summarise key ideas, rather than simply copying notes off the board.