11. Differentiation

‘There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people’ – Thomas Jefferson, founding father of America


1) Think about your most able students. What percentage of your lessons are they idle for?

2) Think about your average students. What percentage of your lessons are they idle for?

3) Think about your weakest students. How much of your lessons do you think they understand?

Differentiation is a technique you can use to ensure that all students spend most of their time learning.

I will present two lessons, one that is differentiated and one that is not. The lesson is based upon a real lesson I observed.

Lesson one: A non-differentiated lesson

Learning outcomes: Know the Romans used symbols instead of numbers

In this lesson, ask the students to copy the ‘lesson’ with the usual explanation:

Roman Numerals

The Romans use symbols instead of numbers:


After 30 minutes, once the slowest children have finished copying, the lesson ends.


What was good and bad about the example lesson?

Discussion of lesson one:

The notes and explanation were clear, and the weakest students had something to do for the whole lesson.

However, there are several serious problems:

  • Most students were idle for a large portion of the lesson. The average students spent about 15 minutes writing and 15 minutes idle. The most able students spent five minutes writing and 25 minutes idle.
  • This lesson is not differentiated – every student is expected to do exactly the same thing. The lesson is aimed at the weakest few students, which means that most of the class don’t learn as much as they could.
  • There is no assessment, so the teacher does not know if the students learnt anything.

Lesson two: A differentiated lesson:

In a differentiated lesson, there are different learning outcomes for different ability students:

All students: know the Romans used symbols instead of numbers

Most students: can convert between Roman numerals and numbers for numbers up to 20.

Few students: can use roman numerals using the symbol ‘C’.

The lesson is presented the same way as lesson one. However, add questions of increasing difficulty that are for the average and stronger students. The students are asked to copy one question before answering it, because they are not expected to finish all the questions in the lesson.

Roman numerals

The Romans use symbols instead of numbers:


Questions: Use the information in your note to answer:

1) Write the following roman numerals as a number:

 a)  I     b) II      c) VII      d) XI       e) XX

2) Write the following numbers as a roman numeral:

a) 3     b) 4       c) 14     d) 19

3) Write the numbers 12 to 18 as roman numerals

4) L = 50

   Connect the following numbers with the correct Roman numeral

            49                    XLI

            50                    LI

            51                    LXXI

            71                    L

            65                    LXV

            41                    IL

5) C = 100. Write 199 and 180 as Roman numerals

Give the students 20 minutes to copy and then answer the questions.

Then swap copy books and you explain the answers to the problems. Bear in mind the level of the students who might struggle with the problem you are explaining, so for question 1 you give a very simple explanation and for question 5 you can give a more complex explanation for the very able students.

Finally carry out a formative assessment activity using fist to five:

1) Show me on your fingers which number is represented by the symbol:

a)  II

b) IV

c) VI

d) IX

2) Write up on the board:

1)   XVII

2)   XIX

3)   XXI

4)   LXXX

5)   CXX

Ask students to show on fingers which roman numeral is a) 19   b) 21     c) 80  d) 17   e) 120

Discussion of lesson two

In the second lesson, weak students will copy the lesson and perhaps attempt the first question. They might understand the explanation of the first and second question but get lost after that.

Average students will complete questions 1–3 and maybe understand the explanation of question 4 and 5.

Very able students will complete the exercise with few or no errors.

The second lesson contains something for every ability of student as well as including formative assessment so the teacher can see who understands the lesson.

Differentiation theory

Most classes can be divided into three groups of students:

  • Weak students: students who struggle with the basic course ideas and are at risk of failing the course. Many classes may have 10–20% weak students
  • Average students: students who are successful with the course, but there is no special ‘flair’ to them. Around about 60–80% of your class will be ‘average’.
  • Very able students: students who find the course easy and need some extra challenge, so they get the most out of your lessons. Many classes will have 10–20% very able students.

A differentiated lesson is designed so that each of these groups of students spends most of their time learning, and every student is given some sort of learning challenge that they can succeed in.

In a differentiated lesson, copybooks will not be identical as some students will complete more work than others.

There are three types of differentiation you can use:

• Differentiation by task
• Differentiation by outcome
• Differentiation by support

Differentiation by task

Different students do different tasks, depending on their ability.


1) In a primary reading lesson, split the class into three groups based on ability. The most able two groups take it in turns to read a text to the group. The weakest group works extensively with the teacher helping them to read while the other two groups work together and help each other.

2) Similar to the example lesson, after the lesson notes have been copied students work through questions. The questions increase in difficulty and are designed to help comprehension of the lesson. Students should not copy all the questions before starting to answer them. If the questions are well designed, many students will not complete them all.

3) Have a task for students to do if they finish the class work. The task should be educational, for example read a book from the library, read some news about the subject or work on a project.

Differentiation by outcome

All students do the same task, however what the students produce will vary depending on the ability of the student.


1) Write about where you live, in French. Write in as much detail as you can.

Weaker students will write a sentence, stronger students will write a paragraph.

2) Write an essay about how the digestive system functions.

3) Make as many words as you can from the letters:   a r t i m s h o

4) In a writing class, accurately copy as much as you can in three minutes, then have a different student check your copying.

5) Have students research a topic themselves using a library, an encyclopaedia installed on a computer or the internet. Students then prepare a presentation about what they’ve found out.

6) Ask questions that are open-ended, with a variety of possible answers.

Differentiation by support

All students are expected to do the same task with the same outcome. The weaker students are given help to achieve the task.


1) Split the class into mixed ability groups and have the groups work together to solve a set of problems. Explain everyone in the group needs to be able to explain the answer to the problems and ask the more able students to help the weaker ones.

2) Pair up stronger and weaker students, with the expectation that stronger students learn by teaching and weaker ones by being taught.

3) Encourage students to seek help from a friend when stuck before seeking help from you.


Plan how you will differentiate some lessons this week. Share your ideas with a colleague.