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#TLT17 Challenge, Differentiation and Inclusion – Part 1 (Myths and Non-negotiables)

October 22, 2017

This is a blog (part 1 of 3) which covers much of my session at #TLT17. Before I start, huge thanks and massive respect to the organisers @davidfawcett27 and @MissJLud for running such a wonderful event. It was a pleasure to attend and a privilege to take a session. Thanks to everyone that came to my session and in particular @chrishildrew, @Pekabelo, @LetsBuySomfings, @LisaFernandez78, @_jopayne, @senoraelliot, @RTSFCPerfArts, @LS_Herts, @NEdge9 and @CristaHazell for tweeting nice things during and/or after. It means a lot (I hope I haven’t missed anyone out).

This blog (part 1) and indeed part 2 are based on my own experience in the classroom from the last 18 years, discussions with colleagues and on a number of blogs I have read in the last few years. This by @teacherhead, this by @atharby and this by @chrishildew have been very important (and I have stolen many of their ideas).


Our Learners are very different. They have different interests and different motivations towards certain subjects and this can change depending on the day, the time of day and even the weather. They may have ALN, they may be EAL. They will all have different starting points. Research from Graham Nuthall suggests that on average, students already know 40% of the lesson content.


Unfortunately this 40% is unique to each learner. They all have differences in their prior knowledge and this combined with how they engage and link with the new subject knowledge, means that they build their subject knowledge in a way that is unique to them. If we accept how different each learner is then how on earth can we achieve our aim of inclusion and challenge for all? Is it possible? As always, we aim for perfection and hope to get as close to it as we possibly can.

In my experience these are differentiation myths:

  • Differentiation and inclusion will be obvious in every lesson.


There are many small, subtle changes that we can make to help all learners access the lesson. However, they are not always obviously observable. But that is ok as we don’t differentiate for someone in the corner of the room with a clipboard to tick off the differentiation box in a lesson observation). I would argue that the more inclusive we are, the less we will need to differentiate next week, next month and next term. Being aware of Cognitive Load Theory can really help ensure your classroom is as inclusive as possible.


Making use of dual coding when we are making explanations is a case in point.

If a Geography teacher is teaching Oxbow Lakes formation then he/she could choose one of the following diagrams to complement the teacher explanation.


Information can be processed through the visual channel (what we see) and the auditory channel (what we hear). The auditory channel is sometimes called the phonological loop and the visual channel is sometimes called the visuo-spatial sketchpad.


or put simply:

dual code oliver


Our working memory has a limit before it gets overloaded but we can increase the amount of information being processed if we carefully choose what pupils see as they listen to our explanations. They have to complement each other. This “dual coding” also helps with encoding into long-term memory. So, why is a so much the better option than b?

The big problem with option b is that many pupils will start looking and reading other bits of the diagram while the teacher is explaining another part. As the pupil reads the words they are sounded out internally and are processed along the auditory channel. The teacher’s oral explanation is also processed along the auditory channel. At the same time. These clash and cause cognitive overload. This means pupils will be left with incomplete understanding. With option a, the visual information will complement the teacher’s explanation. Extraneous information has been removed. This simple example is just one way that we can make our classrooms more inclusive and make our teaching more effective for more of our learners.

(As an aside, option b would be better on an information sheet or in a revision guide. The difference here is that when pupils read this they don’t have the teacher’s explanations competing and potentially conflicting with what they are reading.)

If the teacher opts for b) then more differentiation may be needed at a later date as pupils will have incomplete prior knowledge to build on. This is one of many examples where a bit of thought can have a big impact on student learning.

This is how I would use this image to teach Ultrafiltration and Selective Reabsorption:

loop of henle

Start with the bg picture but then to avoid students reading other parts of the diagram when you are explaining, zoom in,


make your explanation about what happens here in the Bowmans capsule, and then zoom back out to the big picture

loop of henle

before zooming into the next area for your explanation.

  • You need some, most, all learning objectives.  Don’t use these. They betray low expectations as pupils will invariably know which category they fall into. Pupils could opt out of being in the some category for an easier time. Set the bar high. Scaffolding and other support may be needed for some pupils to get them over that bar.


  • Pupils should all be doing different tasks matched to their “ability”.  30+ pupils. Good luck with that.


  • Differentiation means giving every pupil work they can do. Pupils should not be working in their comfort zone. Work should be pitched in their struggle zone. We have to make them think.



  • Many tasks =good, one task = bad. Caveat- there is nothing wrong with a single task in a lesson rather than pupils working on different levels of task but the task has to be well designed.


  • Differentiation will be something we crack. There will always be lessons where it just doesn’t seem to work for all of our learners. This is life. Reflect and refine for next time.


There are some non-negotiables.

Do not neglect the basic entitlement of students with particular learning needs. Check the SEN/ALN register. If a pupil needs buff paper that is what they have. If they have to sit near the front then that must happen. Consult  your SENCO/ALNCOfor further guidance. Tap into the expertise we have in school.

  • Know your pupils. This is easier for core subjects as they have fewer classes and see the pupils more often. The best way to know your pupils is to get up and talk to them about their work and to see their output as often as is possible.
  • Have high expectations of all of your learners. Just bear in mind that you will be communicating your expectations in every single interaction you have with each pupil. But some interactions, like the standard of work accepted and the effort shown in class that is accepted will be especially important. 
  • Make sure you have a “growth mindset” about your pupils and that this is constantly communicated with them. Some pupils may not think they are going to improve, no matter how hard they work. We must believe they will (because it is true- though some will improve in smaller increments than others) and communicate this to them. Hard work is the closest thing to a secret ingredient for their progress.


These latter 2 points link with the most damaging and limiting term we can use in school – “low ability”. In fact the term ability is a problem. It implies a fixed view on whether learners are going to achieve or not. We need to replace ability with current attainment. Low current attainment means just that. It does not communicate that attainment is fixed. It is just where they are now. If pupils are put in the lowers sets, have teachers with low expectations (“what do you expect from these kids?”) and are labelled low ability then they will surely live down to these low expectations. I am hopeful it doesn’t happen here but we must always guard against it.

From the Millennium Cohort Study – 88% of 4 year olds placed in bottom sets are still there when they leave school. As you can imagine, summer babies are heavily represented. Label them low ability when many are just trying to play catch up on their older peers. If we label them, communicate lower expectations to them and don’t give them challenging work, this will be a sure fire way of ensuring they never catch up. Finland don’t group until the age of 14. Something to think about there.

There is also the issue of the effects of being born into a low income household (in general of course):

This is from the Clinton Foundation: Studies have found that by age four, children in middle and upper class families hear 15 million more words than children in working-class families, and 30 million more words than children in families on welfare. This disparity in hearing words from parents and caregivers translates directly into a disparity in learning words. And that puts our children born with the fewest advantages even further behind. 

In our classrooms we need to set the bar of expectation high and then we may need different ladders to help each learner get there.


I am big believer in the Pygmalion Effect (and the Golem effect).




Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson’s study showed that if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from children then (surprise, surprise) the children’s performance was enhanced. This video explains the study and the findings in detail. Robert Rosenthal explained that there were four main reasons for this. The first was climate. Teachers were warmer and friendlier to the pupils that they believed were the “higher attainers”. They were warmer to them both verbally and non-verbally. The second was input. The teachers taught them more material and more content. The third was response opportunity. They tended to call on who they believed to be the higher attainers and they allowed them more time to explain their answers. The teachers helped these pupils shape their answers. The fourth was feedback. The “”higher attainers” were praised more for getting a good answer correct. They were also given more feedback on wrong answers, with a clear clarification on why the answer was wrong. The “lower attaining” students were more likely to have low quality answers accepted.

I understand there are criticisms of the study but I firmly believe that the pygmalion effect and its evil twin the golem effect are important considerations for us. Beware a self-fulfilling prophecy for our “low ability” pupils.

Ban the term “ability” – it has no place in our schools.

Part 2 will follow and will look at how, bearing in mind how different our learners are, we can still ensure our classrooms are inclusive and suitably challenging for all of our learners.


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