The dos and don’ts of differentiation – Rachel Orr

Tuesday 4 June 2019, Teacher Training

by Rachel Orr

The dos and don’ts of differentiation – Rachel Orr

Rachel Orr

What is differentiation?

The education dictionary defines it as this: Differentiated instruction is the way in which a teacher anticipates and responds to a variety of students' needs in the classroom. To meet students' needs, teachers differentiate by modifying the content (what is being taught), the process (how it is taught) and the product (how students demonstrate their learning).

I always say to student teachers, established teachers, and TAs when they are working with groups – what difference are you going to make to these children’s learning because of your input working with them? If the adult is simply keeping children on task or under control, is the learning right for these kids?

I like to associate differentiation with shoes:

  • If we walk around in ill fitting shoes that are uncomfortable, too big or too small we will struggle to learn.
  • When our shoes are too big we have not yet secured the foundations of prior learning to be able to take the giant leap – there are too many gaps.
  • When our shoes are too small we are lacking any challenge because we can simply achieve the task without any thinking – this can lead to disengagement and switching off to learning just as much as when our shoes are too big.

We need comfortable shoes that enable us to be excited about learning, engage, explore, investigate and dive in. However, we need to recognize when our feet have grown and our shoes are becoming a little tight and we need to go shopping for the next size.

How can we make sure we do not put a ceiling limit on learning?

We need to celebrate the differences as they bring different dynamics to the classroom. We need to ensure we don’t put children and students into categories – encourage them to be unique and not try to be like someone else. Children very quickly work out where they stand in a class depending on the table they are on, especially if it never changes. If you set according to ability are you putting a ceiling limit on the learning because of the smaller range of ability, especially in a lower ability set? Children needs sparks. They bounce off each other.

Why do we need to be creative when differentiating?

Make sure you are not capping the learning for children simply because you think they can’t manage it. Ensure all children are able to access the learning at their level but with great challenge. A lot of differentiation is done well through outcome. The biggest difference is simply not accepting a pupil’s first response. Careful questioning and guiding is key to making them responsible and taking charge of their own learning. Pupils can raise their own bar when there is a can-do and inclusive culture.

Aim high. Be the best you can be. There aren’t any limits.


Rachel Orr is a former primary head teacher from the north east of England. Over a 20-year teaching career, she’s worked in a range of primary schools, and has significant experience of curriculum structure, planning, organization and delivery. An education consultant and author, her new book 100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Differentiation (Bloomsbury Education) is out now. Find her on Twitter @RachelOrr

If you liked this…

It’s one of a series of blogs to help make your introduction to teacher training a little easier. Get up-to-speed with some of the topics you’re likely to encounter in your training:

Five ways to ensure a successful ITT year

There’s more to assessment than meets the eye

Getting behaviour right from the start

How to support children with SEND in the mainstream classroom 

Join the revolution: evidence-based teaching