Case Study: Why it's critical to differentiate

Recently I was working with some highly-able students on an open-ended project about global power supplies. These students, aged 11 and 12, were amazing, the way they considered some of the subtle controversies about sustainability, environment, safety, equality, aesthetics and practicality.

This story is about one of the students, Jack*, who was not engaged in the project because he couldn’t see the point of doing it. In my initial attempts to motivate him I tried to prompt Jack’s sense of justice about the damage being caused to the environment and the unfairness that future generations won’t have access to fossil fuels if we used them all up. Jack’s response was that he didn’t care about people in the future so he couldn’t see any point in changing or reducing power consumption now.

I think this is the point when as a teacher I had the choice to either insist Jack do the activity because that’s what’s been set, or find a way to differentiate the activity that would be of benefit to him. I believe that when students do learning activities that they don’t see the point of, their learning is likely to lack meaningful, long-term understanding. In fact I’d go further - I think it’s a waste of their time, which I consider to be as precious as any adult’s.

I chose to step back and change tack. The rest of the students were gathering to see where everyone was up to so I took the opportunity to do a quick ‘learners’ survey’ which I use to get to know students better. The questions I asked were:

  • What are the 3 things you like doing the most?
  • What are the 5 most important things to you?
  • What is your favourite subject?
  • What would you like to learn?
  • What 3 things would you change about life?
  • What is something you don’t like?
  • Do you consider it is important for us to find ways to stop using fossil fuels?

The first thing that happened is that Jack, previously disengaged, now changed his manner immediately. He was interested in the survey because it was about him. Secondly, Jack started relating to me in as an equal instead of as an inferior.

The third thing that happened was the magic…

For the first and second questions about favourite thing to do and most important things, Jack’s answers showed that he loves his PS3 and Xbox. As most of the students had something similar, we paused briefly to discuss what would happen if power ran out or was rationed. Jack looked very concerned and commented that he really needed electricity in his life. The sixth question about things they don’t like showed that the single thing Jack most disliked was writing.

At this point, it dawned on me that Jack was most negative about doing the project when we were writing up research findings. There were several other children in the group who also didn’t like writing so as a group we discussed how frustrating the research aspect of the project felt. We discussed alternatives and found that all the non-writers were much more positive about writing with a computer. So we arranged in the next research segment for students to have the choice to compile their research notes on computers. Of course we agreed this on the condition that they were writing it in their own words rather than cutting and pasting.

This was the turning point for Jack. He went on to produce an in-depth project assessing power sources with strong arguments for why we needed to take action. He also wrote original and lengthy explanations.

So my point with this story, is to show the difference it can make to a student when we bend an activity to suit their understanding, interests and learning preferences.

There are an enormous number of ways to differentiate for students but the important starting point is to get to know your students and help them make personal links to learning. Without these, we are likely to end up looking a little like a teacher with a stick. Or worse still, be guilty of not differentiating.

*Jack is a fictional name.


Penny Willoughby runs seminars, workshops and coaching sessions with teachers on how to differentiate effectively. She receives outstanding feedback on the effectiveness and practicality of her presentations.

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