29 Days of Writing 2016 – differentiation and personalisation

29 Days of Writing 2016

Differentiation & Personalisation in one place

I decided to focus this year’s month of writing (Feb 2016) on a theme. Several factors (beyond my control) have led to these not being uploaded daily; but I did a sprint at the end to complete the series.  I thought it would be useful to put the whole series in one blog. Obviously, no teacher would be expected to include everything in a lesson, but hopefully it will provide some pointers to an aspect of pedagogy we all know, but no one talks about.

Useful Links: (shared in comments of original blog)
Strategies to Ensure Introverted Students Feel Valued at School
A five-cycle living visual taxonomy of learning interactions

Day 1: Differentiation

This time last year, I was traveling extensively; but somehow, I still managed to complete the #28daysofwriting challenge. I thoroughly enjoyed writing and sharing, as well as reading other contributions by learned colleagues. I value my celebratory mug – which was a lovely surprise at the end.

This year, I have decided to use #29daysofwriting to share some thoughts and unpack different aspects of #differentiation and #personalisation. I wrote about this briefly last year in a blog entitled “Cocktails in the Classroom” (Day 19). This year I hope to take it to a deeper level … 29 golden nuggets!


In my role, I meet a range of practitioners across many settings, in many local authorities and when I ask what differentiation means to them – I get a range of responses, as well as often the assumption: everyone knows what differentiation is. Do they? When I ask the children, I regularly receive the comment (or similar) “We sit on the elephant or giraffe table because we are not very clever”. Differentiation is NOT about groups or ability setting. Each day, I aim to unpack a different aspect of differentiation and personalisation with the hope it will support colleagues re-think how to create a conducive learning environment (cross phase). My contributions are not exhaustive, and I look forward to colleagues adding their ideas too.

Day 1 challenge: Jot down a personal definition of differentiation and over the next 4 days list different methods you use to differentiate learning in the classroom. (This is a great 10-minute activity to do in a staff meeting. I use post-it notes and then get staff to share as well as relate back their ideas to the Teaching and Learning policy of their setting.)

Additional reading: What makes great teaching?

Day 2: Response Signals

Hands or no hands? It’s a hot topic – how do we encourage debate and dialogue in the learning environment?

Learning is essentially a dialogue between yourself and others. Learning does not happen in isolation. Learning is the application and transformation of knowledge and skills acquisition to several contexts, based on prior learning and connectivity. So, for it to be effective we need reflection, feedback & on-going dialogue. We also need to know when it is time to move on.

Does every child or young person contribute to the learning in your learning environment? If not … we need to ask why? There may be several reasons. Today, though let’s focus on Response Signals. Like in any relationship, if we can establish clear boundaries on communication, it makes the journey easier. So, I would like to propose two ideas:

1) Bubble Time:

When I taught in primary/middle schools, at the back of the room I hung sign that said “I need some Bubble Time with Ms Devi”. As the children came in the morning – if they had something on their heart or mind that they needed to share, they would take a clothes peg which had their own unique number on it and pin it to the sign. By the time registration was over, I could see at a glance how many children were not in a place to learn. You have to bear in mind, most of my classroom teaching was in deprived areas – so often children had had quite a lot going on before they got to school. Many were just hungry! The class agreed rule was, once the learning activity was set, I made 1-2-1 time for those who had hung up their peg. No-one could disturb us whilst in Bubble Time and so the children got better at being independent learners and using peer support. The method resolved so many issues quickly and behaviour incidents were minimal. The children never abused it – because they valued my time and they knew I valued each one of them. I have seen colleagues use adaptions of the method during tutor time in secondary schools.

2) Thumbs, hands & fists:

This is something I picked up from a school in Northampton. The school has a hands-up policy. However

  • Thumbs-up represents: I agree with what you are saying and have something to add – builds on prior learning model
  • Fist: I hear you, but want to make a counter point – great for developing supportive peer critique
  • Open hand: I have a new point to make – time to move on

Indirectly, the children are learning to listen, discern and make informed decisions (character building).

If you have any thoughts on response signals – do share … after all learning is about dialogue!

Day 2 challenge: What is your model for learning? How is this reflected in classroom behaviours? (Again, great as a 10-minute staff meeting activity).

Day 3: Peer Interaction & seating

Welcome to day 3! Aka #MilkTrayMan announcement day!

Some people call it seating plan, I prefer to refer to this aspect of differentiation as ‘Peer Interaction Plans’ (PiPs). For me, it is an opportunity to think about how to optimise the learning through group dynamics. The importance of dialogue in learning was addressed in #ResponseSignals

In my classrooms (primary and secondary) I tend to have 3 levels of PiPs:

1. Regular PiP

At the start of each year, I think deeply about each pupil in each class I am teaching and how best to seat the children/young people. My decisions are not based on ability. What I consider is the learning space, group dynamics, friendships, let-handedness and other strengths/needs to name a few factors.

2. Special PiP

For some specific topics and lessons, I put together a special PiP. This is not fixed and changes according to how I am delivering the lesson.

3. Self-Choice PiP

On some occasions, I let the pupils decide who they think they can work best with.  They value being asked.

Having these 3 levels (not based on ability) makes for a dynamic learning environment, where the children work in different groups at different times and if it doesn’t work out – it is easy to move someone without embarrassing them.  Support staff find it helpful too – they know the PiP before the lesson.  The kids love it and next to the visual planner I have a PiP sign – so children who do not like surprises can see what PiP we are working from today.

Some settings – I have a focus table.  A space where I sit and if children (all abilities) are struggling with any aspect of their work, they come, sit alongside me for a few minutes – have some additional input and then back to their place.

Day 3 challenge: If you are unsure about group dynamics in your classes – why not undertake a sociogram – great if you have a child with ADHD

Additional reading: Clever Classrooms

Day 4: Outcomes

An outcome is ‘something that will happen as a result of an activity, process, input or intervention.’

Imagine a learning activity as a jigsaw puzzle; where each person has a unique piece to contribute. The learning picture is bigger than each individual piece; however, without each piece the puzzle is incomplete. This is how I set up differentiated outcomes. I know ‘Must, Should & Could’ was a popular way of differentiating outcomes – I found it often (not always) put children in boxes!

Each child knowing, they have something to contribute to a bigger picture enables everyone to feel valued.  This doesn’t work for all lessons/topics – but where it can and does – the learning comes alive like magic. A key part of differentiating learning outcome is knowing your pupils. We will address personalisation on Day 20.

Over a decade ago, when I taught in Harrow (so during the National Strategies and NC levels era), I was part of the local authority assessment group looking at the use of rubrics in learning. I loved them! It helped children get a sense of where they are; but more importantly what to do next to progress. Rubrics bring clarity to outcomes. For too long we have focused on lesson objectives and sometimes at the expense of learning outcomes.

Life without levels has brought in some schools, rubrics back into vogue. I’m glad. So how can we differentiate outcomes in the classroom? Here are a few suggestions – please do add your own

  • Sometimes a learning activity naturally lends itself to being divided up e.g. Children producing a topic newspaper. Someone taking on the role of journalists and reporters, others focused on visuals, others on layout and or editing etc.
  • Chili challenges (hot, very hot, super-hot and extra hot) is used in some schools. Where this is done well, children are comfortable choosing across learning opportunities. It is important to be aware like ‘must, should & could’ – it can become fixed and stagnated if emphasis is placed on differentiating tasks rather than outcomes. A learning activity leads to outcomes, but the same activity can result in different outcomes. For example, a piece of writing can be set with different learning outcomes. Equally different activities can lead to the same outcome.
  • Investigations and open-ended learning choices are a great way to develop differentiated outcomes with a level playing field
  • Encouraging a broad range of thinking skills is another way to differentiate outcomes

Differentiating outcomes isn’t a stand-alone and needs to be considered in relation to other aspects of differentiation such as sequencing (Day 6), questioning (Day 7), choice (Day 9) and Instruction (Day 14).

Whatever approach is used – it is vital to celebrate the achievement of learning outcomes.

Day 4 Challenge: Reflect on what strategies you use to differentiate outcomes that still ensures each child is progressing? How much time and in what way do you celebrate achievement in the learning process?

Day 5: Sequencing

Like last year, due to work and a busy travel itinerary I’m going to have to upload some post together! #LifeofaConsultant

The early years curriculum includes opportunities for children to recognise and form patterns using a variety of dimensions (e.g. colour, shapes, size). This process learning of ‘sequencing’ is the foundation for reading, comprehension and maths. I always encourage EY practitioners to purse the left to right and top to bottom direction to also support motor-perceptual development for writing as well.

Learning, I believe, in essence is a process – interactive, dynamic and fluid. Equally, a process is several ordered (and sometimes discreet) steps that when connected together transport thinking and perceptions to a new positional value of understanding. There is a change!

This process relies on us to simultaneously access ‘prior learning’ consciously in our minds and build in new layers of depth, knowledge and understanding. This is not something we are ‘formally’ taught; but acquire experientially during our formative years. However, for many children; there are several barriers if they have not developed these strategies.

Holding information in your head and processing other information simultaneously places a high demand on working memory. Working memory (WM) develops around the age of 7.  There are strategies to support children develop their WM techniques; as there are tools to measure WM in children and adults. Day 2 we talked about Response Signals – how many times has a child put up their hand to answer a question and then when asked the reply is “I forgot” – the burden of processing and retaining is too much (especially if they haven’t learnt their own method for rehearsal).

Another challenge may be to see & recognise the steps (in order) in a process and/or the connectivity of those steps. Again, this can happen when we give out multiple instructions (I’ve been guilty of this…) e.g. ‘ I would like you to go to the trays, take out your English books, open to a new page and write down the date and title’. Many children get to the trays and then stand there wondering what they are meant to do. Overload!

So, today’s differentiation strategy is simply – let’s make time to break down the steps of the learning process (whatever it might) into a sequence of steps. Let’s communicate this clearly and where possible – make time to highlight the memory hooks to previous learning. Repetition (exact and using different analogies) works for different children and it is important for us to use this effectively in the learning environment. Knowing when to repeat and when to move on, comes from knowing the children and ‘how’ they learn. This is not about VAK – in fact I am not a fan of teachers using VAK. For me it is about understanding the learner.

Day 5 Challenge: Go back to your response to the Day 2 Challenge – considering this blog, would you refine anything?

Day 6: Process Chunks

There is a quote from my days of studying O’ Level literature that has always stuck with me:

“There are wheels within wheels in this village and fires within fires” – The Crucible.

The interpretation of this quote is deep and can be viewed on many levels. But the Gestalt meaning I took away was – look deeper beneath the layers.

Yesterday, we looked at steps in a sequence. Today the focus is on breaking down a single step in the learning process to sub-steps. Let’s take the task: “Write the title in your book and underline it” – what does this involve?

  1. Which book is it?
  2. What is the title?
  3. Where in the book /on the page is it required to be written?
  4. What instrument is to be used to write the title?
  5. How to hold the instrument?
  6. How to form the letters/connect them – on/above the line and direction of travel?
  7. Place appropriate spaces between words and make clear the size of capital letters distinct from lowercase text
  8. Place a ruler under written words – is it horizontal and how do I know?
  9. Use writing instrument to continuously mark left to right

Nine sub-steps to complete a simple task. Modelling and repetition through practice/trial and error will, for many children make this an automated process; which they do not need to think about the sub-steps. However, for some children a gap in any one of these steps can affect their ability to complete the task.

Therefore, for some children we need to develop strategies to break down the sub-steps and still give them independence.

Day 6 challenge: Talk to a colleague about a child in your care who struggles with completing routine tasks independently. Break down the task in to sub-steps. What can you do to support them with the sub-steps? Try it and then share with your colleague the outcome. There is no right or wrong and it may be a question of trying several different methods, before you find the one that works.  Share your intervention and outcome with the child’s parents – can they use this strategy at home?

Day 7: Questioning Skills

Which of the following questions makes you want to probe further into something you are learning?

  • Can you list three _________?
  • What conclusions can you draw …?
  • When did _________ happen?
  • How would you use …?
  • What would you recommend?
  • What evidence can you find …?
  • Can you propose an alternative?
  • What choice would you have made? And why?
  • How could you rephrase the meaning ___?
  • Can you predict the outcome if ___?

I could go on. I always found planning the questions I was going to ask or wanted answered helped me draw out further curiosity from my learners, as well as helped me to assess where they are at. At first, I had to consciously write out the questions and have them in front of me. I wanted the children to give me more than just one-word answers. In time, I wanted to steer away from just the 5Hs and W to questions of meaning and possibilities. Eventually, this became second nature and the real turning point came – when the children of their own accord started asking questions of the authors they were reading or questions that led to deeper investigations.

I had a Question Wall in my classroom and the children could write ANY question they had (not always subject or topic related). I regularly reviewed these and where appropriate used them in my lessons including PSHE or assemblies.

Developing a shared ‘language for learning’ is the foundation for metacognition; (high impact, low cost intervention – EFF Sutton Trust Toolkit). Children & young people cannot reflect on their learning unless that have a language for learning!

Day 7 Challenge: Think about the questions you will ask in lessons this week. What could you do differently? Can you use different questions with different outcomes?

Day 8: Content

I have been poorly, so many of my posts are being uploaded late, I hope readers still find the series useful.

Many years ago, as a school we were looking at literacy skills across the curriculum; in particular writing. So, we invited a specialist to come and work with our Year 6 classes for the day and we as teachers were timetabled to observe. By the end of the day, our most reluctant writers were constructing paragraphs and even stories!

How did he do it? Three key elements, I think:

1) Differentiated texts/content. The texts (linked to history topics) had been differentiated to three different levels. The children all read the same information, but the text clearly had three levels of vocabulary and three different font sizes.

2) Supporting the three levels of text was one visual stimulus in colour (photograph and in black and white) – we will talk about ‘Resource Differentiation’ on Day 13.

3) A range of writing frames that helped to layer ideas and build up written work into paragraphs. Again, more about this on Day 16.

I started to use this in my class and noted a significant difference in engagement – we did not set for English/Literacy. So quite a mixed ability class.

Initially, the visual was presented and discussed at length. Several scaffolded activities and effective questioning helped to draw out the children’s understanding. Then the three levels of text were introduced. The children moved into three groups – read the text and then came back to discuss it with children in the other groups. That way, the children who read the vocab rich text orally shared with their peers what they had learnt, but equally those with simplified text were able to contribute to the discussion.  Everyone felt valued.

Day 8 Challenge: Think about a stimuli text you use could this be presented at three levels? How can the interactive white board be used to explore different levels of text?

Do have a look at Pobble

Day 9: Choice

Some people thrive on being given a choice, others shy away from it. It is important to understand what underpins choice – it is the ability to know who you are, what you like and what you want. Understanding our learners is key to introducing choice. In terms of a life skill, it forms a fundamental platform for communication, social skills and making decisions.


Think of young babies. Non-verbal communication and play, at that age helps children begin to grasp the concept of cause and effect. I smile, someone smiles back! In time they begin to make choices, “This situation warrants me to cry and scream because I’m not happy”. This early stage of communication is so vital and for many children who struggle with communication, it is often a question of developing activities that deepen cause-effect reasoning.

Social skills:

Communication happens in a context and so the development and application of cause and effect moves to contextual clues. For example, it is acceptable to walk about the house barefooted in pyjamas, but this is not appropriate in school.

Making decisions:

As part of the preparation for adulthood, this is a vital skill. Especially learning to say no or, this is what I would like please.

Obviously, space does not permit an in-depth discussion on this or the development of self-regulation, but I hope this helps you to start thinking about the power of choice.

Choice can be introduced into the school environment in a variety of ways to meet the needs of different learners. One method, I love using is choice boards. Using a 3×3 grid, I identify 9 tasks I would like the children to complete over a period of time. Three of these are non-negotiable – everyone has to do these. Out of the remaining six – I might say choose three. The order in which these are completed the children can choose; unless (as in some cases) one precedes another task.

Day 9 Challenge: Think about a typical day in your classroom – how many opportunities for making choices do your learners have? Is there a need to change this? How might you go about it?

Day 10: Time

Today’s focus is on time – thinking/processing time and doing/completing time.

Just by providing children space to think can be a great way to stimulate and promote independence. Particularly if the child has working memory difficulties (see Day 5 Sequencing). The Mastery Curriculum approach is premised on Variation Theory. Whilst it presupposes everyone learning at the same pace, variation theory takes into account a number of factors including the time pupils need to absorb new information and apply in a meaningful way across contexts (synoptic assessment). Hence through variation, there is depth of learning and breadth of application. Horizontal and vertical progress.

In a class of thirty, it is possible to use a range of questions as well as give different children different thinking times to answer them. For example, if I have a child with working memory difficulties I often give them a question saying, “I want you to think about xyz and I’m going to come back to you”. I am giving them space, but indirectly, I am also giving them permission to zone-out from the class conversation to focus on their particular question. Key for those who have processing overload. I continue with the rest of the class and then come back to them. It provides children with working memory difficulties, the confidence to take part and not always fear the “I forgot” blankness that can come. Working memory loss is catastrophic – there is no recycling bin or are you sure you want to delete prompt. It’s gone! Ever have children who put up their hand to answer and as you ask, their consistent response is “I forgot” or they walk up to the board to show their working out/ideas on the board and then wonder why they are standing there!

Naturally, thinking space for working memory difficulties is supported by other strategies such as mini whiteboards, post-its, prompts etc. (i.e. whatever works for the child in reducing the processing load).  See interventions link below.

This can be extended to give children different times to complete tasks with the added factor of support (Day 12) or independently.

I personally feel we don’t create enough thinking time or space in school. Would we be more productive, if we made more space to think? Here is my Fedex Free School (Day 9) blog from last year.

Day 10 Challenge: Have a look at the intervention principles for supporting working memory in the classroom – how might this better help you support children?

Day 11: Pace

A lot of the blogs in this series have focused on children who experience several barriers to learning. Today I want to reflect on children for whom the work is not challenging and who quite simply they get bored. The SEND Reforms 2014 has made us as practitioners think about the kind of support we provide. For instance, two children may outwardly appear to be operating at the same level. However, one child has significant gaps in learning, but cognitively able, so may require accelerated learning opportunities to fill conceptual or procedural gaps. Whereas another child may have cognitive difficulties, for example and therefore requires small steps, repetition, and scaffolds. Repetition and iteration are not necessarily the same thing!

Pace goes hand in hand with purpose. Moving away from the three-part lesson model to mini-plenaries enables us as practitioners to be more flexible and responsive to the learners and the progress they are making.

Does an extension task just mean more of the same or more work?

Over the years, when supporting schools and practitioners, I have met several children who say to me “If I finish my work quickly, the teacher just gives me more work! So, I’ve learnt to just do the bare minimum”. These are young people, who are capable of more, but perceive being able as being given more work. So, we need to ask – what is the purpose of an extension activity? Do we make this clear? Is it to embed existing knowledge and skills in a different context, a paradigm shift to provide a new perspective or to add to further and deepen understanding?

The pace of the lesson supports the rhythm of learning and this sometimes is dependent on the time of day or what has preceded the lesson. There are no fixed answers, but it does require some thought and a dialogue with the learners themselves. Can they devise their own extension tasks? What do they see as the purpose? Can extension activities be linked to their personal interests (application).

I speed read. I have done so since I was at school, but I only discovered this consciously when I was in my 30s. It is to do with my eye movement patterns. I have not been taught – it is just something I do. Looking back over my school reports, I read over and over how bored I was with the learning/lessons. Is it any wonder! I (like others who have a difference) assumed everyone was like that and so I couldn’t understand why the teacher made us go over and over the same text.

Day 11 Challenge: Think about the classes you teach – how do you cater for the more able? Are you aware of children who get it and then get bored? What does an extension activity mean in your learning environment?  What do the children think it means?

Day 12: Support

Looking at support in the classroom relates to both peer and adult support and goes hand-in-hand with perceptions on independence. As a SENCo, back in 2008, I introduced a Scale of Independence in my school. I was keen for teachers, parents, children and support staff to have a dialogue on the quality of support expected and provided. The scale was a simple grid with four levels ranging from fully dependent to fully independent. Since then, the grid has been evaluated turned into pupil-friendly speak and one PMLD special school added a fifth layer “I can help others”.  So, my first question today is how do you measure independence in your setting?


Support as a differentiation strategy is closely linked with pupil interaction plans (PiPs) or seating plans.

Peer Support:

How do we use different skills and talents in the room to support each other? This isn’t just about pairing the more able with those who struggle. It is about optimising relationships in the learning environment. Sociograms are great for gaining insight knowledge around this.

Adult support in the room:

Depending on your context extra adults may be part of the norm or a luxury you dream of. Research over recent years has led us to think more deeply about how we deploy support staff (i.e. their role), what their practice is (i.e. their purpose) and how prepared they are (i.e. how they contribute to the learning, as opposed to task completion). In my classroom, more often than not my support staff are tasked to work with the more able; whilst I focused on those who needed  additional, specialist help.

Day 12 Challenge: Reflect on the lessons you taught this week – how did you use support in the classroom either peers or staff? What could you do differently?

Day 13:  Resource

On a number of occasions, when I have visited classrooms – my first thought has been sensory overload! These are predominantly classrooms that look like an IKEA warehouse. I am not being negative or critical, but make time to sit in the seat one of your students and look at your classroom from their eyes.

One NQT had placed the graphemes to the phonemes the children were learning right at the top of the wall. When I asked her why, her response was “There was no other space to put them”. The children of this class were asked to feedback on the learning environment and what things on the wall or otherwise they found useful and helpful to their learning. The room was stripped down to a functional minimum and the learning dynamics in the classroom changed dramatically.  They were no longer distracted by the stuff!

Practitioners often believe the use of visuals is helpful – it depends on a child’s language development and their working memory. It is helpful to look at the hierarchy of language.

When introducing any resource, it is useful keep in mind sensory motor co-ordination. I always encourage left to right and top to bottom movement.Clockwise and anticlockwise go without saying.

Day 13 Challenge: Think about the resources you use in your lessons – do they support the hierarchy of language development? What further research do you need to undertake?

Day 14: Instruction

Differentiated Instruction combines several differentiation techniques already mentioned into a coherent whole. It is about honouring each individual learner and considering the combination of content, process and outcomes required to progress their learning.

The Report by The Sutton Trust (Oct 2014) What makes great teaching? is a recommended read.

Key findings

The two factors with the strongest evidence of improving pupil attainment were:

  • teachers’ content knowledge, including their ability to understand how students think about a subject and identify common misconceptions
  • quality of instruction, which includes using strategies like effective questioning and the use of assessment

Specific practices which have good evidence of improving attainment include:

  • challenging students to identify the reason why an activity is taking place in the lesson
  • asking a large number of questions and checking the responses of all students
  • spacing-out study or practice on a given topic, with gaps in between for forgetting
  • making students take tests or generate answers, even before they have been taught the material.

Interesting less successful strategies included lavish praise, grouping by ability, using notions of preferred learning styles and aimless discovery approaches.

Day 14 Challenge:  Draw a process scheme or flow chart to show how you differentiate. Share this with colleagues and ask for feedback.

Day 15: Task

I have deliberately put task differentiation towards the end of differentiation series; because I think it is the most commonly used form of differentiation. But too often used to de-mark difference than highlight collaboration.

What if task differentiation though, was perceived as a constructing a jigsaw and each learner or groups of learners know they are bringing a jigsaw piece to the bigger picture of learning. This no longer becomes about ability, but collective purpose and team work. Within the work environment, task differentiation is a way of managing collaborative efforts towards a united whole.

In using Bloom’s Taxonomy, some commentators suggest a mixture of two types of differentiated tasks:

1) Mastery tasks that can be achieved by all; thus, enabling all to experience success

2) Developmental tasks for those who are capable of being extended further into deeper understanding.

I would like to suggest these categories provide a somewhat artificial approach to differentiation. Firstly, I think learning should be rooted in real life learning scenarios that have an outcome beyond the scope of the classroom. AshokaU Curriculum schools ground learning in local problem solving. Other schools talk about REAL Projects. The scope of these learning opportunities can vary, and creative curriculum design enables teachers to consider broader implications and applications. Secondly rather than perceive task differentiation as a layered process why not present it to the children as a co-constructive learning opportunity. Thus, focusing on the united efforts of all learners.

Day 15 Challenge:  When presenting task differentiation to the class consider how you can help each learner/groups of learners see the connectivity between what each of them brings to the process.  What can you do differently?

Day 16: Alternative Methods of Recording (AMR)

As I have continued through this series, I have become more and more conscious how my writing style tends to pose more reflective questions than suggest any new content. That’s because I believe we are all experts in our own right. My intent in focusing on differentiation and personalisation was to start a dialogue to help us all (myself included) unpick this aspect of classroom practice further, based on 1.24 of the 0-25 SEND Code of Practice.

AMR in the classroom is so powerful. It starts from the premise that the recording of learning can be undertaken in a variety of ways. Obviously, these can be audio recorded or shared verbally. From a written perspective, I like to see the thinking behind the work that is presented. So, I use a variety of scaffolds to unpick what the children know, what they want to know and what they have learnt.

Here are two menu boards of AMR for you:

You can use these whilst planning your lesson, but also ask the children how they want to present their thinking/learning.

Day 16 Challenge: Think about the range of alternative methods of recording you use in your classroom? Is the progress and creativity of learners inhibited because we insist on a set layout for the outcome?

Day 17: Learner Role

Expectations in the classroom can inhibit or empower learners. I heard a story recently of a teacher who had two children in the same class with the same name. One was focussed and an attentive learner who achieved well. The other less so. He was distracted and too often his work remained incomplete. During a parent-consultation evening, the teacher got the parents mixed up and he told the distracted boy’s parents what a delight it is to teach their child. The parents went home and shared this with their son. Those words of encouragement changed this boy’s life and he started to be more attentive and engaged. As a result he progressed. Why? He felt – here is a teacher who wants me here. We could discuss this story from many angles, but the point I want to make here is expressed expectations and encouragement can make a significant difference.

So, do we have high expectations for all our students? What does that look like? Visiting schools, I talk to a wide range of pupils and it breaks my heart when children openly say to me “We are on this table, because we are not very bright”. In schools, we spend a lot of time on self-esteem and confidence, but not so much on self-efficacy.

Let’s invest time in defining the learner role, not just through a contract that we ask all children to sign, but through deep meaningful conversations that convey our high expectations of learners.

Day 17 Challenge: How and when do you share your expectations of learners with them? What could you do differently? What are the learners’ expectations of you as the teacher? Do these need to change?

Search ‘Learner role’ online – what new things are you beginning to discover?

Day 18: Feedback and marking

I’m going to start this blog with a visual. It contains 27 ways of giving feedback. You may not agree with all of them and many may not be applicable. Make a list of the ones you do use – what could you add to your list? Does it differ for different children or different learning content/methodology?

In recent months, there has been a lot of debate about marking and life without levels. Fundamentally, the purpose of marking is providing the learner with feedback about what they are doing well at and how they could move on further. Feedback should be both encouraging and challenging. It is not about the colour of pens; but valuing effort, input, outcome and potential.

More than a decade ago, I was involved in a local authority assessment focus group and we started to explore traffic light marking. Contextually this was during The National Strategies era and expectations on daily marking were high and beyond the workload of teachers. Traffic light marking involved marking six books a night across a range of abilities and using the feedback to adjust the next lesson on the next day, if required. The next night another six books and so on. In a week; every book was seen at least once; but more importantly feedback was used to inform planning, delivery and further learning. Parents were comfortable with our approach and it meant teachers were not staying late every night to mark.

Feedback needs to be timely, purposeful, authentic and real – what values does your approach to feedback represent?  Is this clear in your school policy?

Day 18 Challenge: What strategic approaches to marking can you use to ensure feedback informs lesson planning and extends learning, but remains manageable?

Day 19: Assessment

There is a tendency to divide assessment into two camps: formative and summative. My personal preference is to see 7 types of assessment in three categories:

A) Chef

Assessment for learning; tasting the meal as it is being prepared. This includes therefore:

  1. Formative assessment
  2. Dynamic assessment
  3. Synoptic assessment
  4. Ipsative assessment

B) Guest

Someone who who comes for a meal

  1. Summative i.e. on the day without any knowledge of what has gone on before – a bit like Come Dine with Me.

C) Judge

Like Master Chef specialist skilled at diagnostic analysis

  1. Diagnostic assessment
  2. Criterion references assessment

In addition, we cannot forget the range of types of observation that can be undertaken and pupil voice.

Day 19 Challenge: Look at the types of assessment you use – is there a broad and balanced approach? Can you use the 7 types above to categorise your approach to assessment? How is the data from any form of assessment used to enhance the learning?

Day 20: Personalisation

At the heart of differentiation and personalisation is the relationship between the teacher and the learner. In differentiation, provision is teacher-led. Whereas personalisation is learner-led. It is not a question of one or the other; but more about how the two combines to optimise the learning opportunities for all learners.

Differentiation tends to focus on what has to be taught/learnt, how, why followed by who. Personalisation flips this process by first asking who am I teaching? This embraces knowledge of their prior learning, their interests, their motivation factors (intrinsic or extrinsic … not all children like stickers) and how far can I stretch them out of their comfort zone for them to still experience success and be resilient to setbacks. The next consideration is why? How will this learning add to what they already know or where they want to go. Next comes what to teach, followed by how.

Over the last 9 days of this #29days of writing series, I will explore 9 aspects of personalisation. In the meantime, … I would encourage you to read Oceans of Innovation.

Day 20 Challenge: Look back over some of your plans – do you start with the what or who? What can you do differently?

Day 21: Designers

·         Differentiation: The teacher facilitates learning for groups of learners

·         Personalised learning:  The learner drives and actively participates in the design of their learning

Allowing someone to drive and design their own learning involves risk and letting go. Can this be undertaken within the boundaries of a classroom learning environment? For sure. It makes the learning process alive and real.  Establishing the basics of classroom management is a given and children and young people like to know where the boundaries are. However, within the framework of the learning context, we can give them freedom to design their own learning. The design might take the form of an outcome, a direction, a method or pace. Learners who become designers of their own learning are much more highly motivated and the dialogue switches from how to complete the task to what is the best choice I can make to understand this new piece of knowledge or skill? Who can I work with and how? In effect, they become learning architects stretching the boundaries of innovation to be creative and resourceful.

I would also like to propose that in terms of sustainability this approach is better at developing life skills and ensuring lifelong learning habits or behaviours.

I can cite numerous experiences, when I have let the children design their own learning. How I set this up differed on each occasion, depending on the topic, the age of the children and how independent they were etc. However, each time, I saw accelerated learning in some of my most vulnerable learners. You have to try it to see it!  It also helps children embrace diversity, by seeing there is not a set way to achieving an outcome.

Day 21 Challenge: What aspects of the curriculum that you deliver is it possible to co-design or let the learners design their own learning?  How might you put this into practice?

Day 22: Aspirations

I love talking about aspirations and how we work with children, young people and their families to develop their aspirations. Here is a link to a national poster on aspirations I co-designed in 2015.

The term ‘aspiration’ is used extensively in a lot of the latest documentation to come out of the DfE and Ofsted and yet neither organisation has provided a coherent definition. This is my definition

“The ability (and opportunity) to set goals for the future whilst maintaining the motivation, inspiration, independence and confidence in the present to reach those goals utilising a thought-out plan of action”

In other words, there are five components:

  1. Vision for the future
  2. Plan of action
  3. Sustained and increasing motivation, inspiration, independence and confidence
  4. Current activity
  5. Learning / transformational process

Aspirations connect the now with the future.


  1. There is low activity in the NOW and not much planned for the FUTURE – the children are in hibernation mode
  2. There is high activity in the NOW, but not much planned for the FUTURE – the children are in perspiration cycle and they will burn out!
  3. The is low activity in the NOW, but high activity envisioned for the FUTURE (i.e. your wanna be footballers) – the children are in the imagination zone!
  4. Aspiration happens when there is high activity both in the NOW and in the FUTURE
  • Differentiation: Learning adjusted to the needs of the group
  • Personalised learning: Learning is linked to interest, talents, passions and aspirations


Day 22 Challenge: Think about the learners in your care – are they hibernating, imagining, perspiring or aspiring? If we inspire as teachers – does aspiration naturally follow?

Day 23: Responsibility

  • Differentiation: The teacher is responsible for ensuring a variety of instruction: depth and breadth
  • Personalised learning: The learner owns and is responsible for their learning that includes their voice and choice on how and what they learn

I remember buying my first car; as it if it were yesterday. It was mine and so the hours I invested in cleaning it, decorating it and making sure it ran smoothly in some way far outweighed the value of the car.

When we own something our perspective and sense of care shifts. It is no longer distant, but an extended part of who we are. The same is true of learning. I met the head teacher of a secondary PRU last week and she made an interesting distinction between self-development (something we do a lot of in schools) and personal development (looking at the holistic aspect of who we are, what we believe and the out-working of our identity and beliefs in everyday life). Learning shapes our identity and the company we keep. Encouraging learners to take greater responsibility of their learning and voice enables them to challenge themselves and others from a premise of personal growth and interdependence.

I have been guilty of this … too often responsibility is artificially discussed in schools through tasks and jobs. Surely responsibility for one’s learning goes deeper from a positional clarity on why am I here and how can I benefit? For me, what I have observed over the years, where I gave learners responsibility (from two-year olds to adults) there was a deepening of self-regulation. Over time, this helped them to be better citizens and experience stronger resilience when things went wrong or not as they had expected. There was no one to blame, not even themselves! Just an opportunity and the momentum to do differently and try again!

Day 23 Challenge: Think about how you encourage learner responsibility – what could you do less of or more of?

Day 24: Goal Setting

  • Differentiation: The teacher defines specific objectives for learning based on group needs
  • Personalised learning: The learner identifies goals for their learning with the teacher to support next steps along the journey

A few years ago, I ran a 10K race for charity and the focus was on ‘my personal best’ (PB). Not how I did in relation to others, but how I was improving. One of my friends met me along the route on their bike and encouraged me along! In a learning environment, where focus is on PB, the teacher takes on the role of a coach. As a coach, the teacher draws out the solutions and strategies from the learner. This may be totally different to how the teacher perceives it, but because of the relationship, there is respect and honouring allowing the learner to experiment with his/her ideas.  Even if it means getting it wrong!

In our classrooms, do we focus on PBs on meeting nationally defined milestones? Nationally defined milestones are helpful to keep us on track, but we cannot be driven by them. I guess this goes back to our perceptions of assessment, feedback and marking.

Day 24 Challenge: How do learners in your care define their PB? As a coach, how do you encourage them on, to go further and extend their PB?

Day 25: Decision Making

  • Differentiation: The teacher chooses suitable resources and technologies to aid learning
  • Personalised learning: The learners make choice about the use of the technologies and resources and develop their own skills

I was one of the first girls in my school to take and pass a Computer Science O’ Level. Coding, back then helped me to develop my thinking processes. What I found is I became very proficient at project management processes, regardless of what industry I worked in. The use of technology is education is a highly debated subject and I don not claim to be an expert.. Like others, I believe the SAMR model focuses too much on activity design than quality of teaching.

What I do think we need to develop more of is thinking skills and decision making. In terms of a life skill, this is vital to long-term sustainability and personal growth. Everyone has to make decisions at some point in their life. Some will be successful, others not. Either way, without being given opportunities to make decision in the small things, it is hard to make decisions about the bigger issues in life.

Decision making involves several sub-skills:

  • Asking the rights questions to turn a practical issue/problem into something that is answerable
  • Acquiring relevant information to make an informed choice
  • Appraising the options and information critically
  • Aggregating different and often conflicting pieces of information (including consequences and logical progression)
  • Applying the information to the decision making process
  • Assessing and evaluating the decision and learning from the process

Day 25 Challenge: What proportion of your lesson, do you allow students to make their own decisions and accept the consequences that go with it? Is there scope to increase this?

Day 26: Independence

Independence was addressed on Day 12, when looking at Support. So, in this blog, I just want to highlight the difference:

  • Differentiation: The teacher remains the main support for learning to take place
  • Personalised learning: The learner pursues increasing independence and metacognition as well as interdependence with peers

We only purse that which we perceive as valuable. Is independence seen as a sought after commodity in your setting? What are the enablers and barriers? No man is an island and so the ability and skill to work with others is pivotal to growth and feedback.

Day 26 Challenge: Spend some time reflecting on how you encourage learners to pursue independence and interdependence.

Day 27: Metacognition

The EEF Toolkit clearly articulates the impact metacognition has on learning. However, the reality is learners cannot reflect on their learning is they do not have a language and model for learning. Over the years, I have seen several schools try to encourage metacognition without first establishing a language for learning.

On Day 24, we talked about Goal Setting and Day 18 Feedback. ‘Even Better If’ (EBI) is a language some schools use to extend pupils’ personal best. The phrase is used as part of the whole school community culture. That’s means teachers, peers and parents all give feedback using EBI. It makes it non-personal and there is a shared understanding about the intent behind the comment.  A shared language implies partnering.

Day 27 Challenge: Do you have a shared language for learning? Look at Day 2: Response Signals

Day 28: Interdependence

Interdependence is mutual dependence between things. Surely a contradiction. We want our children and young people to be independent!?! Day 26 Whilst identity and purpose is important for learners, so are relationships.

I think we have a great opportunity in schools to support young people develop healthy attitudes towards relationships. Not always easy, as often they arrived scarred from events along their journey. How many times though have we read that classic story where the relationship of a teacher and a student helps to turn around the life of the student and they go on to achieve outstanding things.

Over the years, I have had the good fortune to meet many of my students as adults and it always amazes me how the simplest of things I said or did had the biggest impact.

Teaching is about sowing seeds and sometimes we never know or see the fruit of our endeavors.

Day 28 Challenge: Take a moment to celebrate your life as a teacher.  Remember all the magic moments and when you have gone that extra mile for a student. Thank you for who you are and all that you do!

Day 29: Failure

It’s hard to believe we’re the end of the #29daysofwriting. Hopefully these 29 days have provided you with vignettes to rethink and affirm your own approach to differentiation and personalisation.

It seems a little odd title to finish on ‘Failure’. Maybe I should have called it ‘resilience’. My fundamental premise being what is the culture in your setting to ‘failure’? Last year, I wrote a blog on ‘Failure is not an option‘ (Day 3); which was all about how we respond to change and adapting the plan.  As I embarked on this journey, I had a plan … but then life happened!  However, in adapting the plan – hopefully I have made a difference.  I certainly have enjoyed sharing my thoughts.

  • Differentiation: Learning results in graded outcomes
  • Personalised learning: Learning leads to great competency

Day 29 Challenge: Make time to rest and celebrate!

Thank you for reading my series on differentiation and personalisation. I hope it has helped you to reflect and celebrate the good practice in your classroom and possibly extend you to thinking differently in some areas.