Differentiation and Outstanding Learning: Is there a difference?

Mrs Hughes shares her blog post on the most recent Teach Meet:

The inspiration for this half term’s Teach Meet came from reading Tom Sherrington’s Blog ‘To address underachieving groups, teach everyone better.’ In this, Tom is referring more to interventions aimed at sub-groups such as Pupil Premium, but this got me thinking about how we support our SEND students in particular. Tom says that “at some point ‘intervention’ really has to be simply ‘teaching’.  Given all the variables, uncertainties and unknowns, rather than chasing interventions, it is a far far better bet to focus on teaching everyone better.”

Essentially, Sherrington is saying that the reason why some students underachieve is likely to be a product of some insufficiency with the core teaching and learning process, and after looking into the EEF Blog: Five evidence-based strategies to support high-quality teaching for pupils with SEND, I couldn’t help but think that these five strategies are just strategies that I would expect to see in outstanding teaching. That is why this blog will examine how we teach those with SEND, and if this is in fact ‘differentiation’, or just inclusive and outstanding teaching.

One of the first areas of discussion was around the article: What do teachers think differentiation is?  In this David Didau states “Of all the impossible tasks expected of poor, overworked teachers, differentiation is one of the most troublesome.” And I must confess, I am from a generation of teachers who were taught to believe that differentiation is different worksheets and differentiated Learning Objectives. In fact, during my teacher training, you would not be able to refer to differentiation by outcome as differentiation at all. This was something that all of us remember being told. We went on to discuss ‘Setting vs Mixed Ability’, as evidence suggests that countries who select later reduce inequality in secondary school, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds do better.

In reality, the evidence from Hanushek and Woessmann shows that there was no negative effect of late selection on any group, even the brightest 5%. This reminded me of our first ever Teach Meet at NWC, where we discussed Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan, in the book Lucy was talking to a Chinese teacher who had visited the UK and thought it odd how students are given different levels of maths, explaining that those with ‘easy’ maths will never keep up. Again, this made us question, does differentiation by task (as well as setting) disadvantage and cap our students learning rather than support them? If we want to demonstrate outstanding learning, shouldn’t we start from the top and support all in getting there?

In his blog, What do teachers think differentiation is? David Didau explains how according to PISA 2015, “Adaptive instruction” is the most positively correlated factor with achievement (other than socio-economic profile). This is:

  • The teacher adapts the lesson to the class’s needs and knowledge.
  • The teacher provides individual help when a student has difficulties understanding a topic or task.
  • The teacher changes the structure of a lesson on a topic most students find difficult to understand.

However, the UK only places 15th for this. We discussed why this might be, and one excellent point was that in reality, ‘adaptive instruction’ is something that an outstanding teacher does so ‘seamlessly’ that perhaps it’s not that obvious. This not only highlights how important it is to know our students, something that we pride ourselves on at Northwood College for Girls, but also, that differentiation shouldn’t be obvious. We shouldn’t be telling a student that this work or worksheet is for your ability as this in itself is loading with fallacies. Firstly, that ability is set and secondly, that differentiation is explicitly telling students what their ‘abilities’ are.

Next we looked at SecEd’s article Differentiation in the classroom by Matt Bromley. One interesting idea we discussed from this was curriculum design. Bromley talks about the importance of teacher autonomy, but not individualism, meaning that schools should agree on a pedagogical approach or framework for all lessons. Now this seems restrictive, but the metacognitive reasoning is one that I found particularly interesting, plus, anyone who knows me, knows how much I like structure and routine.

This states that if we teach all lessons in a similar structure, students working memory has more room to absorb content. I do often wonder if we were to follow in a student’s footsteps for a day, how we would cope with spending just one hour on one concept/topic and then moving to another completely different one. I can find it difficult enough just going from a Key Stage 3 lesson to a Key Stage 5 lesson. This must be even more challenging for those with SEND.

Matt Bromley’s ‘4 Step Teaching Sequence’:

  1. Telling
  2. Showing
  3. Doing
  4. Practice

We discussed Bromley’s proposed structure, however, we were dubious about how you would realistically be able to do this over one lesson? And if you couldn’t, is it a consistent approach across classes? That being said, we discussed some interesting versions that are out there e.g. activate, explain, practice, reflect, review. As a lover of routine and structure myself, this idea really appeal to me, we all agreed that consistency is important in lessons and lesson structure. Nevertheless, our Deputy Head of Academic did make an important point, by putting in these structures we can dampen teachers’ autonomy and also what makes their lessons so special to students. If we start dictating a one size fits all approach to lesson structures, then we could run the risk of removing the vibrant experience that our students get from the school, the routine and security should be set by the teacher.

Bromley moves on to discuss one of the ‘dons’ of differentiation, Blooms Taxonomy, and another favourite from many of us during our teacher training. Thankfully, what he says about this thoroughbred of teaching does support our views. This is a useful tool for questioning, but dangerous for differentiation, as it implies that knowledge based questions are not as valuable, however, we know that you cannot analyse something that you do not know.

This is why we now implement lots of key vocab quizzing. This also links in really well to Mr Merk’s ‘Rainbow Road’ which is an excellent resource that sets out a series of questions using Blooms, but the expectation is that all will get to the top, this just builds their knowledge and confidence. Much better than differentiated learning objectives. Rather than expecting different outcomes of different pupils, we should have high expectations that all our pupils will reach the same destination.

Finally, we discussed the EEF Blog: Five evidence-based strategies to support high-quality teaching for pupils with SEND. This is a useful and succinct tool kit; the five key strategies are: 1. Scaffolding, 2. Explicit instruction, 3. Cognitive and metacognitive strategies, 4. Flexible grouping and 5. Use Technology. But once again, we did ponder whether there is anything that we would do differently when teaching to the top? We specifically discussed ‘Cognitive and metacognitive strategies’, as our last Teach Meet looked at this, and our unanimous conclusions were that teaching metacognitive strategies is crucial in successful and outstanding teaching. This is because the research we looked at last time showed a small, but increased, impact that teaching these skills to an intervention group had over ‘re-teaching’ content.

We also discussed the fifth strategy, ‘Use technology’, which given the Post-COVID world we are currently educating in, it seemed only natural that we would. Again, what is interesting is that the suggestions of a visualizer to model worked examples and quizzing applications, are simply online versions of the metacognitive strategies that we already know work for all students. We were also united in our appreciation of how digital has been able to enhance our teaching and ability to support all students (even through lockdown).

After another uplifting and inspiring session, not only was I reminded of just how incredible our staff are, but also how passionate the teaching community is. We all agreed that what is important is ensuring that we have an inclusive classroom. This is synonymous with differentiation, but it is also synonymous with high standards and expectations, as well as the belief that all of our students can excel. So much of the research we discussed around supporting those with SEND, to us was outstanding teaching and learning. So, if we use these tools, we will ‘catch’ and support all of our students. As Viviane Robinson argues in Student-Centred Leadership (2011) that although “feet of varying shapes should not be shoved into the same ill-fitting shoe”, in teaching one size can fit all, but it has got to be the most impressive (and inclusive) shoe you ever did see.

With special thanks to Clare Alexander, our new SENDCO who help select this Teach Meets reading and Gareth Elliot who has worked hard to create partnerships with local schools in our community.




Matt Bromley, Differentiation in the classroom. Available at: https://assets.markallengroup.com//article-images/213881/April2019-Differentiation.pdf [Accessed: 21.10.20]


Lucy Crehan, Cleverlands: The Secrets Behind the Success of the World’s Education Superpowers, 2016


David Didau, What do teachers think differentiation is? Available at: https://learningspy.co.uk/research/teachers-think-differentiation/ [Accessed: 20.10.20]


Kirsten Mould, EEF Blog: Five evidence-based strategies to support high-quality teaching for pupils with SEND. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/news/five-evidence-based-strategies-pupils-with-special-educational-needs-send/ [Accessed: 21.10.20]


Viviane Robinson, Student-Centred Leadership, (2011) Jossey-Bass Leadership Library in Education


Tom Sherrington, To address underachieving groups, teach everyone better. Available at: https://teacherhead.com/2018/09/17/to-address-underachieving-groups-teach-everyone-better/ [Accessed: 21.10.20]