Over the past few years, ‘differentiation’ has become an increasingly unpopular term in teaching. Most likely, it was an unintended consequence of an accountability system that incentivised teachers to ‘prove’ they were differentiating by generating multiple worksheets or by organising mini-lessons for different groups.
In a helpful document entitled, ‘Differentiation – Why and How?’, NASEN capture some of the problems:
The possible danger behind this is that it may lead to a lowering of expectations, particularly when in-class groupings are permanent e.g. ‘the bottom group’ receives a different task to everyone else, regardless of the particular needs or aptitudes of the pupils in this area of learning. The provision of ‘unnecessarily elaborate’ approaches is not considered to support the learning and progress for the majority of pupils; this means that, for example, the practice of providing three levels of task for every lesson, with different worksheets etc, would not be appropriate. 
NASEN also remind us that there will still be pupils with SEND who need and benefit from different resources, teaching materials and strategies to access their learning.
Is it time for ‘adaptive teaching’ to replace differentiation?
If ‘differentiation’ comes with too much baggage, it may be timely to move forward with new terminology and ideas. The term ‘adaptive teaching’, especially as set out in the Early Career Framework, resets our expectations about what it means to differentiate, and it offers a more helpful and practical model.
For a start, it is what you think it is: being responsive to information about learning, then adjusting teaching to better match pupil need. In that respect, it’s a helpful term that does what it says on the tin. As with anything in education that sounds like common sense, though, we need to explore the nuance if we want to build a shared understanding of exactly what this looks like in the classroom.
The Early Career Framework is certainly a good starting point (I won’t reproduce it in full here, but I recommend reading Standard 5). It breaks the term ‘adaptive teaching’ into more concrete recommendations for teaching. For example:
Provide opportunity for all pupils to experience success by:
- Adapting lessons, whilst maintaining high expectations for all, so that all pupils have the opportunity to meet expectations.
- Balancing input of new content so that pupils master important concepts.
- Making effective use of teaching assistants.
But even this requires further unpacking. The third bullet point alone is the topic of an entire EEF guidance report: ‘Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants’! And there are other questions we might ask about this section. How exactly do we adapt lessons? What sort of adaptations are we talking about? What is the right balance of new content to mastery of existing concepts?
How are schools and Trusts tackling ‘adaptive teaching’?
School leaders play a vital role in helping staff achieve precision around exactly what particular practices, like ‘adaptive teaching’ involve in classrooms and across the school (their ‘active ingredients’).
It isn’t as simple as saying, ‘Here’s what adaptive teaching means: now use it.’ Instead, we have to build shared understanding over time. What does it mean in our context? What does it mean in maths or PE lessons? Clearly, adaptive teaching places a great emphasis on formative assessment, so are our assessments well designed to produce information that guides instruction?
In my trust – Education South West – we’ve tried to commit the time to developing exactly this kind of shared understanding. We’ve shared the evidence, drafted definitions, sought feedback on them and have taken steps to develop a model to help teachers think about adaptive teaching in more concrete terms.
See our shared resource on adaptive teaching here:
Is this the final outcome? Definitely not. The model presents a generic view of some elements of adaptive teaching. Its primary purpose is to help teachers understand what adaptive teaching looks like in the classroom and think about the kinds of adaptations they could make. However, we know that we need to think about this in subject-specific terms too.What questions about ‘adaptive teaching’ are helpful for leaders and teachers thinking about your approach to adaptive teaching?
- Are there existing assumptions about differentiation that need addressing?
- Are staff aware of the term ‘adaptive teaching’? What do they understand by it? How could you find out?
- If it’s relatively new, what would be the rationale for introducing it?
- What will motivate staff to value this approach? What will sustain the momentum and help embed the approach?
- Is there a helpful sequence for building staff knowledge and techniques for effective adaptive teaching?
NASEN: ‘Differentiation – why and how?’ 
Davis et al (2004) Teaching Strategies and Approaches for Pupils withSpecial Educational Needs: a scoping study. London DfES.
Deunk et al (2018) Effective differentiation Practices: A systematic review and metaanalysis of studies on the cognitive effects of differentiation practices in primary education. Educational Research Review 24, pp31-54.
EEF (2020) Special Educational Needs in Mainstream Schools.