Visualising Learning: Differentiation and Scaffolding

Part of the Visualising Education Blog Series

Differentiation is another one of those terms which teachers interpret in many different ways.  For example, differentiation by outcome, differentiation by input, differentiation by learning level to differentiation by activity/ task.  Thus a simple definition of differentiation could be what will you do differently for each student/ group.  When I teach differentiation I use the RAGTOP acronym (Resource, Assessment, Group, Task, Outcome and Pace) as this gives the trainee teacher a framework to reflect and develop their personalised approach to differentiation within their specialised teaching domain. However, there are many items missing from this, such as questioning, modelling, and personalisation. Other acronyms have been presented such as PROMPT (Pace, Resource, Outcome, Modelling, Personalisation and Task). What is clear, is that these acronyms are starting points which aid the teacher in developing their own unique approach to differentiation for their students, classes and specific learning domains.

Each student brings their own needs and expectations to the classroom and teacher needs to recognise and address these needs and expectations within the planning and delivery of lessons. The process of planning for differentiation is just a subroutine within the lesson planning process.  For example, based on student data the teacher could differentiate by assessment, where students produce different levels of work.  This is like the BTEC courses where the student(s) aim for either Pass, Merit or Distinction. (Ignoring the debate about how this type of provision results in reduced motivation and aspirations.) Similarly, differentiation by outcome, for example, can group one explain which muscles are used during the squat thrust, whereas, group  two may be looking at the internal mechanism of the quadriceps during the squat thrust.  Semantically, it could be argued that the real difference between these two types of differentiation is that one has assessment criteria (BTEC) and the other is about establishing or consolidating knowledge.  However, at some point, the students will have to undertake an assessment to prove that learning has taken place and thus achieving the requirements of the qualification. I have provided a simplistic top level view of this process in figure one. It is at this point where the confusion between differentiation and scaffolding starts to develop.

Simplistic Top-Level View of Differentiation

Figure One: Visualisation of differentiation within a lesson

Scaffolding (Wood, Bruner, and Ross’s (1976)) is about dripping information to allow the students to progress, which leads to attainment. For example, use capital letters and full stops, then moving on to capital letters, full stops and compound sentences and so on. Thus, Scaffolding is linked to the concept, ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) which is attributed to Vygotsky and his theories of learning.  I will purposefully avoid the debate about who coined the phrase ZPD. However, in simple terms we can visualise ZPD as a journey to becoming a Master, with many hurdles along the way, I will refer to these hurdles as ‘points of frustration.’ When a student becomes frustrated it is because they ‘do not know what to do,’ they have hit a point of frustration and require additional input from the master (teacher, knowledgeable peer or video) to move to the next stage. This input may need to be differentiated based on the student’s needs, skills and knowledge. However, as the student begins to develop mastery of the subject they hit fewer points of frustration as they have more knowledge and skills to draw against, see figure two.

ZPD as Learning Journey

Figure Two: Visualisation of the ZPD as a learning journey

The key message is that differentiation supports the scaffolding process, although there is an argument that they are not mutually exclusive, thus, are dependent upon each other. Another way of looking at this is, how will you differentiate learning to avoid points of frustration, whilst move learning forward.

To visualise differentiation within lesson planning I have provided a simplistic lesson plan below, in figure 3 (for a discussion about lesson planning click here). Remember that progression is about identifying any improvement or the creation of skills and/ or knowledge (what does the student know now which they did not know before?). From the simplistic lesson plan example, figure 3, differentiation is based on the students learning level (Pass, Merit and Distinction) and their outputted work (Assessment). The objective is the students learning target and the visualise progression, is how the student will see that they have progressed. Scaffolding is achieved at two levels a) by completing each learning episode, which in this case is separated by the teachers input and b) within the learning episode where students can progress through the levels. Similarly, a group of students could spend the full lesson just completing the first learning episode, on the assumption that this is the core learning for the assessment and you need the pass students to achieve all the requirements for all levels (Pass, Merit and Distinction).

Notice that in the lesson plan, learning episode one leads into learning episode two. If during the first teacher input, the teacher’s assessment (Assessment for Learning) shows that some or all of the students can skip the first learning activity, then do so. Making students who already have this knowledge and skillset, complete the first learning episode, is not progressing their knowledge, understanding or skillset and therefore no progression is taking place.



Figure Three: A simplistic lesson plan showing differentiation and scaffolding.

Visualising Learning: Differentiation and Scaffolding
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