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Differentiation/ Stretch and Challenge for all:

Students need to get the most out of learning in order for them to realise their true potential. It makes logical sense that tasks handed out to students would be very easy for some, and very challenging for others. Differentiating lessons for the able, gifted and the talented students focuses on maximising the results for all students.

How to differentiate lessons

One of the most effective ways to differentiate lessons is to start by asking yourself the 2, very basic, questions:

1. What are the most advanced tasks related to the topic being covered that the most knowledgeable/ able student on the given topic would be able to complete?

2. What are the most advanced tasks related to the topic being covered that the least knowledgeable/ able student on the given topic would be able to complete?

Once you get the answer to these 2 questions, you can easily define a ZPD, also known as Zone of Proximal Development. This zone refers to the space, or a zone, in which different students should be placed according to the skill-set they possess, in order to get the most out of their abilities and help them excel in their studies. The key factor to consider here is to hand out the tasks to the students that are just a little bit beyond their ZPD, but not way beyond to have them reach a point where they would not be able to complete a task by themselves and have to reach out for external support or guidance.

7 practical approaches to differentiating lessons:

Keeping in mind how important it is to differentiate lessons for students of different knowledge, understanding and capabilities in regards to specific topics, 7 practical approaches to differentiating lessons have been developed.

1. Menu This approach, once again, follows the concept of self-assessment as the students are asked to choose a task for themselves. All the tasks that may be assigned are labelled with a level of difficulty. You might have already guessed that the task with the lowest level of difficulty would be the one that lies in the ZPD of a less able student and vice versa. The “Menu” may have a starting task labelled as a “Low Level Challenge”, three or four tasks in between and a “High Level Challenge” at the last part of the menu. It is up to the students to decide which task they think they are going to be just about able to complete.

2. Ability groups

This approach divides the entire class into groups of students, grouped on the basis of their ability to handle the task at hand. These different groups are then provided with different material to complete the task, which is also based on the level of skill and intelligence they possess.

3. Mixed-ability manipulation

This approach is similar to ability groups, in the sense that the class is divided into different groups. But in this case, the group consists of just 3 students i.e. a very able student, an average performing student and a less able student. Each student in a group is also labelled as follows:

· A: Middle Performing Students

· B: Less Able Students

· C: Most Able Students

After such a grouping is completed, each of the students in a group is handed out a task, based on their ability to perform it. Once the tasks are defined, students from all the groups with the label A and C occupy two different portions of the classroom and help each other complete the task assigned to them. The teacher takes the lead of the remaining group, B, and provides them with the support and guidance they require to get the task completed.

4. Drop-in sessions

A drop-in session is another effective approach to differentiate and is based on the concept that allows each student to receive the teaching that is required. To accomplish this task, the teacher creates a schedule and communicates it to the students during the lesson. The schedule includes the different topics that each session is going to cover, along with the time for each session. Each student chooses which sessions they think they may benefit from, and joins the session at the appropriate time. The session is usually arranged around the desk of the teacher so that they have access to the whiteboard and other necessary resources. This approach is based on the self-assessment of a student, as the students themselves decide which session they need to attend.

5. Ladder

This approach also follows a strong concept of self-assessment for the students. The teacher hands out a piece of paper, which depicts the structure of different tasks or assessments that are structured in a fashion similar to that of a ladder. This ladder may even be communicated through the whiteboard or with the use of a physical ladder, with labels or sticky notes attached to each step that communicate the task. It is up to the students to assess themselves and decide which step is going to be their starting step on the ladder. Unless a student completes a task at a specific step, he or she may not be able to move up the ladder and take on the next task. The teacher acts as a “Quality Controller” in the sense that each student visits the teacher on completion of the task to have the results assessed and be allowed to move up a step on the ladder. It may be noted that this ladder of tasks and assessments is also structurally based on the ZPD levels, with the first step of the ladder being a task that occupies the ZPD of the least able student.

6. Peer coaching

This can be done in a variety of ways. The most commonly used practice is that most of the more able students get the task done, and are then asked by the teacher to roam around in the class and help the less able students complete their tasks. One of the more effective ways of doing this is to allow the more able students to form a group and within this group to perform research and preparation on a topic and then deliver the next lecture to the entire class.

7. Self-service

As the name suggests, this approach follows the concept of self-assessment as well. But the self-assessment here is far beyond those of the earlier approaches. The students themselves have the option to choose what to learn, when to learn and how to learn. It must also be noted that extreme care is needed when handing out activities, tasks or resources to the students so they can make an appropriate selection.


These 7 approaches are some of the best ways to differentiate lessons. One thing that is certain is that a differentiation strategy helps the performance not only of the shining stars of the class but also helps the less able students advance in their studies.


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