Recently I’ve had DIFFERENTIATION on my mind, I’m presenting at a Teach Meet on Tuesday evening on the issue of stretch and challenge and I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking about how we provide the appropriate level of challenge for all our students and how best to support teachers in doing this.

Tom Sherrington argues in his post Gifted and Talented provision: A total philosophy that ‘cracking the issue of ‘G&T’ provision is the key to success in the classroom and across the whole school’ and I’m inclined to agree, ‘teaching to the top is the best way to ensure that every student in any class is fully stretched and challenged..not a strategy to be dipped in and out of; it should be a fundamental philosophy that underpins all plannign and delivery, including curriculum design’.

For me there are three essential ingredients to success, firstly what Tom calls the ‘spirit of differentiation’ and an ‘anatomy of high expectations’, secondly  feedback/critique, knowing what an exceptional piece of work looks like and setting success criteria accordingly and lastly questioning.

High expectations

I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry. When the teachers at the Austine School for the Deaf pointed out to Sonia that many students wouldn’t obsess over their work as she does, her reply was quick: This school has ruined me for life, she said. I’m never satisfied with anything until it’s almost perfect. I have to be proud of it.” (p8, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ Ron Berger) via Alex Quigley

I try to avoid the notion of talking about students in the terms of ‘gifted and talented’, we should throw all students into the ‘deep end’ regarding their learning and not only rerserve this for the few. In lessons I’m looking for three things, ‘How many?’, ‘How far?’ And ‘How deep?’ and in the lessons I’ve observed that are below par, usually the issue regarding ‘how deep?’ the learners have to go is what pulls down the overall experience. It is a core skill to ensure that the most able students in our classroom are challenged on a daily basis and I suspect like many teachers in my role in schools, I am sometimes left questioning how ‘challenging’ our students find their everyday lives in school and whether the development of thinking is encouraged by all. This can be an issue of teacher confidence in subject matter but it is also symptomatic of low expectations.

‘Around the country, children in Year 9 will be making the same Powerpoint they were asked to make in Year 5; they will still be doing the same kind of percentages and fractions that they learned in Year 6 and still be having the same discussion about food chains in a forest environment that they had in Year 4’ Tom Sherrington


Austin’s butterfly

Related strongly to high expectations is the issue of feedback/critique. I have read several references in other  blogs to Ron Berger ‘The ethic of excellence’ and the story of ‘Austin’s butterfly’. I’m sure Austin’s story is one that is echoed in classrooms all over the world, do we sell our students short in terms of our expectations? It should be a priority for all subject areas/teams to ensure that all teachers are aware of the standards that are expected at the highest end of any class; more to the point this also needs to be shared with students. How often do we accept work that is below par?

‘How often do we pigeon hole students, fixing them into a category of attainment and more or less expecting their work to reinforce that pre-determined view?Do we challenge students enough when they hand in mediocre work and say ‘no-you are capable of so much more than that? I think that too often, we allow students to under sell themselves; and so they do’ Tom Sherrington

Redrafting is key, marking is differentiation and as David Didau states, ‘the practice of engaging meta-cognitively with your work is a hugely powerful lever for learning.’ At my school we do this through D.I.R.T (Directed Improvement and Reflection Time), regular calendared opportunites for students to engage with their teacher’s formative feedback and improve on their work.



pictures via @Shaun_Allison

More on my school’s approach to DIRT here



You want to know the difference between being ‘good’ and being ‘great’? Work on your questioning..the very best teachers I have worked with are experts at this. Love this quote which sums it up perfectly for me..

‘An outstanding teacher would be outstanding in a field or on a desert island with no kit, no resources and nothing to write on. It is just you and them.. and a really good key question.  A less confident teacher will not probe enough, will accept surface responses or will not create the intense atmosphere of active listening required from the class.  Sustaining probing dialogue with any number of students that engages them all is the hallmark of a great teacher…. it’s where we should begin.’ Tom Sherrington

See my post on Great Learning for a collection of excellent posts on questioning strategies.




  • Self-leveling  resources:  students able to tackle Pythagoras questions of  increasing difficulty, self-checking answers and moving through at different rates.
  • Bronze, Silver and Gold questions: questions on cards, at different levels with students able to self-select according to confidence and success.. with teacher prompting some to move on or consolidate.
  • Scaffolding  frameworks at different levels:  essay writing guidance with varying levels of structure.  In this example three levels:  one with no      support; one with paragraph outlines and another with sentence-level starters.
  • Homework choices (Tic, Tac, Toe)


  • Leadership grouping:  more able students given leadership responsibility in each of a number of mixed ability groups with a ‘group goal’ that required any group member to report back.  Just one of many group structure  strategies.
  • Deep end thinking (ACDC cards)


  • Reciprocal Teaching


via Claire McWilliams our Year One leader


As you can gather I am hugely indebted to the rather marvellous Headteacher Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) of KEGS and others for this post, so many thanks Tom et al for helping me to crystallise my own thoughts on this issue.