Differentiation: Five Key Points

The latest issue of the TES contains a good article on differentiation by Mike Gershon.  There has also been a spate of articles about it online recently, such as this one from the Guardian by Rachael Stevens, and this one by @headguruteacher.  Here is a summary of a few key points.


DON’T assume that differentiation is just about providing support for the less able or extension for the more able.  DO try to ensure that ALL pupils will find the lesson challenging – as the old saying goes, nothing worth having ever comes easy.

DON’T assume that differentiation is something that you have to plan into every part of your lesson.  DO take note of how the students are getting on, and be prepared to clarify tasks, give examples, model a task, ask more probing questions, etc.

DON’T assume that the easiest way to differentiate is to group pupils according to ability.  This may sometimes be true, but DO consider extending pupils who are succeeding by asking them to support those who aren’t.

DON’T assume that the best way to differentiate is to offer three different versions of the same task. DO expect all pupils to complete several tasks which vary in nature: this means that each can let their strengths come to the fore at different stages in the learning process.

DON’T direct closed questions at the less able and open questions as the more able.  DO give all pupils the opportunity to answer all questions.  This may mean you need to allow more time to some than to than others, or that you need to break the question down more for some than for others.

For some good practical ideas on how to deliver lessons which are both accessible and challenging, check out this resource posted on the TES website.

Remember this? # 2 – H5W

To improve the pupils’ questioning skills, try this slight variation on another strategy from the Leading in Learning initiative.

Present the pupils with a stimulus image, text, item, etc.  Tell them to ask questions about it, but ascribe a specific question word to each pupil, pair or group:

H5W = How?  Who?  Why?  Where?  When?  What?

Challenge the pupils to reach a certain number of questions, or to come up with more than their classmates.  Once an initial bank of  questions has been created, there are all sorts of directions you could go in  …

Simple starters # 5 – Press Conference

This starter certainly lends itself to topics where specific events are important, but with a bit of imagination it can work in other areas too.

You are about to hold a press conference. As the pupils come in, give them their press passes, stating which media organisation they represent. Tell them to get their pencils ready as an important announcement is about to be made and their editors are expecting a full report from them.

press conference

Give the students a brief outline of the “event” – by no means the full story – and then ask if there are any questions. Initially they may be slow to get going, and you may need to drop a few “hooks” into the answers you give them.

This can be a surprisingly effective way to deliver a lot of content in a short space of time, and in a way which really engages the students.


“Thunks” are simple questions designed to promote deep thinking. They can be good fun to use as a warm-up exercise at the start of any lesson, but are particularly useful for priming students to explore a certain topic. Click here to visit the visit a website which posts a new thunk every day (and submit your response if you wish – see the screengrab below), or here to see a Thunks PowerPoint posted on the TES Resources website.


Other examples of Thunks:
What colour is Tuesday?
Is it more important to be honest or to be nice?
If you paint over a window, is it still a window?
If I composed a piece of music, but it was never played, is it still a piece music?