Differentiation: not just three versions of a worksheet. Using questioning to support all learners.

When we talk about ‘closing the gap’ differentiation is a word often used to ensure all learners in the classroom can make progress. When I was completing my teacher training, I really wish someone had told me that ‘differentiation isn’t about producing three different worksheets for a lesson’. Early on in my training year I fell victim to this mind set and would spend hours into the night producing resources. I quickly realised during my NQT year that what I was doing in the classroom and the ‘on the spot’ differentiation was much more effective. Not only is it a massive waste of time, the research suggests that it does not support student progress either. The aim here is to suggest some practical strategies to use/adapt for lessons and in the classroom. They are in no way perfect, completely original or going to get every single one of your students a grade 9!

Section 5 of the teacher standards states that teachers “must adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils.” It does not say ‘reinvent the wheel’, ‘teach different’, or ‘give your SEN students a different worksheet’ it says adapt. The teacher is the most effective tool in the classroom and adapting your lessons/questioning/resources will enable high quality teaching and learning. As a RE and Philosophy teacher large chunks of my lessons involve questioning and discussion, and I have found it to be one of the most valuable tools for differentiation and to ensure all my students are making progress. Asking scaffolded questions allows teachers to differentiate instantly and in real time. It has the added advantage that you can adapt it at any point if you feel it is not working as well as you would like. I will be honest the vast majority of my differentiation is through questioning. It does not require great amounts of additional planning and it’s also AFL at the same time.

1. Differentiation through questioning – Blooms taxonomy

Think about scaffolding the difficultly of questions using something like Blooms Taxonomy. You can then differentiate your questioning by asking the ‘describe’ ‘give me an example of’ type questioning to your less able, and building up the higher order thinking skills.

Let’s imagine a lesson on Christian attitudes towards divorce. Pre-written questions might look something like this…

· Which denomination of Christianity do not allow divorce? (answer – Catholics)

· Give me one reason why Catholics do not allow divorce (it’s a sacrament/Jesus did not agree with divorce etc)

· Could you give me a reason why someone might disagree with the Catholic view on divorce? (divorce is more socially acceptable/divorce is better in cases of abuse etc).

You can see that the questions progress from basic knowledge, through to considering different views (evaluation). You can differentiate by choosing which students you will ask which questions to (this is why I don’t have hands up). You can prewrite some questions before the lesson (I used to do this before lesson observations as a trainee) if questioning does not come naturally.

2. Add, change, challenge and develop

This is a strategy I picked up in my training year, it’s a great way to involve students in structured discussions and differentiation at the same time. Students can choose, or you can direct them to add, change, challenge or develop during questioning.

· Add – students can add something to the discussion (e.g. add another keyword to a list)

· Change – students can pick up on errors or misconceptions and change it to the correct answer

· Challenge – students can create a challenging question for another

· Develop – students can develop upon what another student has said (e.g. a piece of scripture to support Adam’s point is…)

You can see that add is relatively simple, whereas develop/challenge requires higher order thinking skills from the student.

3. Allow processing time

Give students time to process and think. Some students may struggle to answer a question instantly and will need the processing time. A useful way to differentiate here is to use visual timers – this is a really simple and effective strategy for some students.

4. Open ended ‘big questions’

Use lots of open-ended questions which don’t always have a correct answer. This allows you to cultivate a classroom environment where students aren’t afraid to make mistakes. You can differentiate your questioning here too.

See examples below

Ask for students’ opinions on their learning/topics:

‘Do you agree with…?’

‘What would you have done if…?’

‘How might you have responded to…?’

‘How might your learning link to issues outside of school?’

‘How might you use your learning today in the future?’

‘How might people view this in ‘X’ years time?’

Respond to students giving their opinions by asking:

‘Why do you think this?’

‘Why might someone disagree with you?’

‘Would someone living in ‘x’ agree or disagree with you?’

5. Mini whiteboards

You can give students who have difficultly processing information/retaining information a mini white board so they can jot down words/answers to your questions. This helps students to structure their answers and feel more confident in class discussions.

6. Student led discussions and questioning

A really great way to push and challenge students is to choose a student who can lead a group discussion and pose questions to the class. This requires a high level of knowledge from the student and is a great way to quickly differentiate. You can prep the student beforehand if you are worried about this not working! ‘Next lesson I’d love for you to lead our discussion on Christian worship. Is that something you would be happy to do?’.

Miss C



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