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Putting differentiation into practice

Putting differentiation into

practice in secondary
science lessons
Andy Piggott
How do we match learning activities in science to pupils differing needs?
This article looks at various approaches and how they can be put into

The basic idea of differentiation in teaching is

acceptance of the fact that pupils have different
learning backgrounds and different levels of
achievement. We must therefore expect them to make
different rates of progress and need different learning
tasks in order to achieve to the best of their potential.
A logical end-point to this argument would be
individualised learning for all. In a class of 30 this is
a very difficult task without fantastic resource backup. Neither is this necessarily the answer because,
amongst the many things that pupils need, they need
to learn how to be part of group or to use teamwork
as a support for their own learning.
Perceptions have built up over many years that
science involves great pressures of content and
practical work, leading to a tradition in some
secondary schools of whole-class activities being the
norm, if not the only type of teaching. How then do
we change this and ensure that there is at least some
matching of learning activities to pupils differing
needs? This article looks at different approaches to
differentiation and provides examples of how to put
these into practice.

Catering for the needs of pupils of differing
abilities in science tends to be regarded as
problematic, with the norm being whole-class
teaching. This article describes different
approaches to providing differentiation in the
science classroom and gives examples of how
these can be put into practice.

Differentiation by outcome
All too often, the challenge How do you differentiate? prompts the reply We differentiate by
outcome. In practice, this can mean that a common
task, a whole-class activity, is set for all pupils but
different outcomes are accepted by the teacher. With
this method alone, different groups of pupils are
unlikely to make sufficient progress. It is possible to
differentiate by outcome, but not easy. It can also be
difficult to illustrate to an observer (such as an Ofsted
inspector!) that differentiation is actually happening.

Differentiation using common tasks

This involves the least apparent change from the
whole-class activity system. The same task is still set
for all pupils but teachers then insist on different
outcomes according to the abilities of the pupils.
Advance predictions of which groups will achieve
which outcomes is important and the teachers
knowledge of individual pupils is vital, assisted by
assessment data. At its simplest, this will be in terms
of what higher ability, medium ability and lower
ability pupils will achieve (see Assessment below).
Practical work often gives opportunities for the
teacher to talk to individual pupils or small groups.
The support given almost automatically varies
according to the abilities, understandings and skills
of the pupils concerned. Raising awareness in this
fashion is a good step but is unlikely to produce real
progress unless the pupils task is actually changed
(see Teacher-managed adjustment to different tasks

School Science Review, June 2002, 83(305)


Putting differentiation into practice

Common tasks with focused support

A great deal of successful work is done with the least
able pupils by the use of focused support while all
pupils are engaged in a common task. Writing frames
are now in widespread use to support those with
writing difficulties and there are many instances of
worksheets being rewritten at a simpler level, perhaps
with more illustration and/or direction than those in
use by the rest of the pupils.
Pupils with special needs may have support staff
attached, and it is vital that the class teacher briefs
such staff on the common task and is involved with
the selection of learning resources that are needed to
support the pupil. Physically disabled pupils may
require additional support: for example, hearingimpaired pupils may need microphones and amplifying receivers or signing support staff; wheelchair-users
may need adjustable-height benches or changes to lab
layout. The Individual Education Plans (IEPs) that
are written for pupils with special needs should
summarise both the generic support that they need
and anything that is specific to their science education.
For a further exploration of issues in this area see
Peterson, Williams and Sorenson (2000).
Where pupils are not working in English as their
first language, specialist language support is often
vital. However, translations of scientific vocabulary
may well be needed and, again, liaison between class
teacher and specialist support can be very productive.
The social, cultural and religious background of all
pupils also needs to be taken into account, especially
where our science curriculum can appear alienating.

Extension work differentiation by

adding more
Higher level tasks or worksheets are often kept in
reserve in order to extend the brightest pupils. All
pupils are still set the same task but those who finish
before the others are given these extension tasks. This
system is not differentiation in a true sense and hides
a number of problems. Given high-level or motivating
tasks in the first place, it is not necessarily true that
bright pupils finish first. Indeed, if they become really
involved, they may well be amongst the last to finish,
especially if they have a drive to produce wellpresented work.
At the same time, bright pupils can soon work
out that if they show understanding of a lower level
piece of work too quickly then they will be given even
more work to do! Brighter pupils are not necessarily
the most industrious nor the most motivated to work.


School Science Review, June 2002, 83(305)


Being given extra work can also be a reinforcement

of the boff syndrome. Talent may then be deliberately hidden. Alternatively, for the really well motivated
pupil, the common tasks can be rushed through with
scant regard for learning in order to get to the more
interesting extensions.
Although not true in all schools that use extension
work, it is noticeable that such work (held in reserve
for when it is needed) often stays in reserve, as other
work frequently overruns the time available in the

Differentiation by task
The most important idea here is that different pupils
do different tasks or activities, with the aim of all
pupils progressing from their own starting points. This
means different tasks for different groups or different
tasks within a group.
This is obviously not something that can be introduced all at once but has to be worked up to. Where
pupils are used to whole-class activities, change must
be gradual in order not to create resentment, jealousy,
distraction or obvious streaming within the classroom
(Wellington, 2000: 135). Once in place, it can help
greatly with reducing boff syndrome, as pupils are
then used to doing different things and the higher
ability pupils do not stand out.
Having different practical activities within one
lesson does not necessarily mean more equipment is
needed. Whole-class practicals need between 10 and
15 sets of the same equipment, whereas having different tasks can mean only two or three sets of the same
equipment are needed. This averages out over a series
of lessons to be the same for either method, or even
less heavy on equipment for differentiation by task.
Tasks are not necessarily apparatus-based.
Totally different contexts for different pupils can
easily lead to differentiated work. However, pupils
can stay within the same context but still have
differentiated work. The tasks that they undertake can
be varied by the depth of knowledge required, the
level of skills needed, the level of English language
required, or even the actual language used. For
example, the ASE project Science Across the World
can supply investigational projects to work jointly
between schools from different countries and using
different languages; while some pupils work in
English others can be faced with the much harder task
of the same investigation but in a modern foreign


Using different tasks also allows an observer to

see differentiation in action much more easily.
So, how might differentiation by task be

Teacher-managed different set tasks

All science teachers use the technique of a circus of
experiments as part of their repertoire often the
energy circus in key stage 3. This usually means all
pupils circulating around all the experiments. It is
often rushed as too many activities are attempted in
too short a time. Opportunities for pupils to reflect
on, and teachers to challenge, learning are lost.
It is a short step from here to allocating an
experiment or small group of experiments to different
pupil groups according to the difficulty of the
experiments and the abilities of the pupils.
Alternatively, a multi-variable investigation can have
different variables apportioned to different pupil
groups in the same way. Again, small groups can be
set the task of becoming experts in different, tightlydefined areas.
In this example, the whole class can benefit from
short demonstrations or presentations from each group
so that all pupils have an overview of the whole topic
and each group has an in-depth knowledge of some
part of it. This also means that pupils are learning to
work as a team and to learn from one another as well
as from their teacher. For an investigation done this
way, a variable investigated by one group can be used
to justify (or not) the control (or lack of control) of
that variable in another groups investigation. So
analysis and evaluation skills are enhanced.

Teacher-managed adjustment to
different tasks
From whatever starting point, teacher questioning of
pupils as they work can reveal problems of understanding or such an ease of understanding that learning
time is being wasted. A teaching response to either of
these might well be changing the task for that
individual or group of pupils. A simpler worksheet, a
writing frame, or restrictions on the experiment may
all help those in difficulties. For those who are
coasting, a higher level text may be needed, a series
of challenging questions, or a completely different
task in the same topic area. It is important to realise
that the idea is to change the task and not just add
tasks to those already being done.
The questions teachers use have themselves to be
adjusted to the teachers knowledge of each pupil.

Putting differentiation into practice

Difficulties, or lack of challenge, revealed by probing

questions can also be addressed by selecting from the
range of mini-strategies that teachers develop or invent
on the spot. As well as the ideas above, a mini-strategy
is a teaching response to pupils answers; it may be a
short explanation or discussion, a new piece of
equipment taken from the cupboard and demonstrated,
a new drawing made, a concept map sketched in, and
so on. These are effectively mini-lessons for small
groups and are best done by allowing them to take
the place of what the pupils were doing and, again,
not expecting them to be additional to everything else.

Pupil-managed choosing
different tasks
Although this idea can be teacher-managed, it is best
when pupils are aware of their own needs and choose
tasks to suit. Of course, they only get to this stage by
being lead through it the first few times (or more)
and with continuing support from their teachers.
For example, from a set of graded mathematical
examples pupils might all do one or two easy
questions to gain familiarity and then branch out to
harder or easier questions according to their abilities.
Alternatively, pupils might choose questions from past
examination papers at F, F/H, or H levels, depending
on both their abilities and their confidence in that
particular topic.

Generic task automatic adjustment

to different needs
Open-ended activities can lead pupils into different
tasks and different levels of learning. If pupils are
used to making and using concept maps, for instance,
they can be set to produce their own concept map of
an entire topic. Teacher input can refine the map and
it then becomes a very personal revision aid for the
end-of-topic test.
Similarly, once pupils have been taught research
skills over a period, then setting an open research task
within a particular topic can result in some very
personalised learning, which can then be shared back
with the whole class through posters or presentations.
If the task is truly open, a range of resources will be
needed and pupils allowed to concentrate on areas
that interest them. While teacher guidance is often
needed, the aim is for pupils to be trusted eventually
to make appropriate choices for their own learning.
Obviously for the pupil-managed and the
generic task there is always the danger that some
pupils will not work to the limit of their abilities, or

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Putting differentiation into practice

others will try to work beyond their abilities; it is then

that the adjustment to different tasks by the teacher
is required.

Teamwork different roles

In practical work especially, pupils fall naturally into
different roles, some recording, some observing, some
organising (some chatting!). In order for pupils to
learn more about working in groups it is important to
make them aware of these roles. They can then be
supported in practising those roles that do not come
easily to them, so that they learn the benefits of
teamwork and how the roles interrelate. This is
excellent preparation for work outside school and,
indeed, employers are often looking specifically for
these skills. At the same time, science education
benefits as pupils learn to help each other to learn,
sharing knowledge and skills and supporting each
other when the going gets tougher again, a skill that
is needed outside school.

Differentiation by learning style

There is a great deal of talk about pupils needing a
wide range of teaching and learning styles. It is
certainly the case that each pupil will have a preferred
learning style and is liable to turn-off from science
if they never get the chance to learn that way. Hence
teachers need to expand their own repertoire in order
to cater for the 30 individuals they may have in each
class. Satisfying this need is generally thought to be
the purpose of a scheme of work, allowing different
styles to come through in different pieces of work.
However, if we take seriously the idea of having
different pupils do different things within one class
and within one lesson, there is nothing to prevent us
having pupils learn in different ways at the same time.
To tackle a difficult topic (perhaps electrolysis see
below) it is often necessary to build in reflection time.
In that time, pupils can work in different ways: some
might be discussing a problem and drawing up a joint
set of notes; others might be trying out small sample
experiments; others drawing cartoons of the major
points; others still composing a poem or song.
The idea of diverse ways of learning is taken
further by the Learners Cooperative (Chapman and
Hamer, 1998). However, it should not be thought that
a pupil is allowed to learn using just a small selection
of methods, different though these may be from those
used by other pupils. Each pupil, especially brighter
pupils, needs to learn how to learn and this means


School Science Review, June 2002, 83(305)


becoming familiar with different methods. The boy

who is keen on logical analysis must be able to work
cooperatively and creatively; the girl who enjoys
creating well-presented prose must learn the art of
prcis and mathematical analysis.

Grouping of pupils
Little has been said so far about how pupils are
grouped for science. Those teachers who have mixedability groups know that this is a tough way to teach
because differentiation has got to be very visible to
avoid teaching to the middle dominating. Setting,
however, does not remove the need for differentiation.
Even within one set, pupils are by no means homogeneous; they require a range of activities and ways
of learning to keep them motivated. It is certain that
different levels of sets should be offered tasks suited
to their needs.
Once overall classes have been decided by the
science department, it is up to the class teacher to
decide how pupils work within their class. Many of
the techniques outlined above demand different
groupings of pupils at different times, so it is good
practice to start with the idea that it is the teacher
who decides who sits where and when, rather than
getting stuck with allowing friendship groups to
dictate. If we share with our pupils the reasons why
they need to sit in different groups, they will gradually
accept the idea that the criteria for the grouping is
what works best for this particular learning activity.
This also helps with discipline and supports work on
gender, work with different ethnic groups, inclusion
and quite a lot more.
Some teachers dictate the seating arrangements
for every lesson, but it makes for better relationships
if groups can be negotiated on occasion. Mixed-ability
primary school classes make very successful use of
within-class groups of different abilities. In the
secondary sector some negotiation on friendship
groupings is probably desirable, especially if pupils
are brought to accept the need for changing groups
for particular learning activities.

School policies on homework can lead to homework
being set just because it is on the timetable for that
day. If it is not planned to fit in with the work the
pupils are doing, it can easily end up being the same
for all pupils. Indeed we are all capable of throwing


out the instruction to Write the experiment up for

homework or Finish this off for homework. Neither
encourages pupils much; nor does always setting the
same thing for all pupils.
Careful planning can ensure that homework
supports classwork. If classwork is differentiated, then
homework should be too. Encouraging pupils to work
at their own level and on different but meaningful (to
them) tasks means that they will eventually accept
being set different homework.

Differentiation cannot be successfully achieved without forward planning. For any form of differentiated
work to be useful, teachers must know their individual
pupils well in order to be able to judge what they need
to make progress. The most basic form of assessment
is also the most useful: talking to pupils and gauging
what they understand, can do, or have difficulties with,
from their verbal answers.
Assessment of all forms of activity within class
can add to the basic perspective. Watching practical
work, judging poster competitions, watching and
interacting with pupils who are drawing concept maps
or diagrams, listening to pupil discussions or formal
presentations all give teachers good clues as to what
a pupil is capable of. These forms of assessment also
have the merit of not involving marking books in the
evening and at weekends, though obviously the
marking of books has its place as well.
Assessment data often informs the perception of
groups within a class, but the teachers own knowledge of the pupils remains vital. Cognitive Ability
Tests (CATs) can be used to provide data on
individuals different abilities (OBrien, 2000). While
previous key stage levels in science are useful, those
for English and mathematics also give clues to an
individual pupils needs.
QCAs scheme of work for key stage 3 (DfEE/
QCA, 2000) provides a wealth of detail of what lower,
medium and higher ability pupils might be able to
do, based on analyses of previous national key stage
tests. These enable teachers to set appropriately high
expectations for each type of group or set.

Pupil presentations

Putting differentiation into practice

of each type of group is very much widened this way

and it is also a great way to cover a breadth of ground.
At the same time it introduces time for reflection, for
pupils to go over in their own minds what it is that
they have learned and how this relates to what the
other group is saying. Reflection time is a vital but
rare commodity in science lessons.
Like differentiated work itself, pupils skills at
making presentations have to be built up and continually supported. Talking to a poster that they have
made themselves can be a good start. Insisting on
respect for those who are talking is excellent training
in itself and also good for discipline of course. If you
want to take this into more formal presentation then
the Pupil Researcher Initiative has published a useful
booklet aimed at the pupils themselves (Sherborne,

More able pupils

Organisations concerned with very able pupils aim
for differentiation by enrichment and by extension.
This makes the point that it is not necessary, or even
appropriate, to make differentiated work for such
pupils much harder than for others. Very bright pupils
often need more time to reflect, to learn across a
broader reach and to go into areas that others will not
normally enter.
Although it is not necessarily intended, much of
this sort of work tends to be with after-school clubs,
masterclasses at weekends and in the holidays, and
so on. This may be a problem because again it means
that brighter pupils do their ordinary lessons and then
do extra, which is not always acceptable to these
pupils. We should be aiming to respond to their needs
in ordinary lessons. Enrichment and/or extension that
is additional to ordinary science lessons should really
be offered to all ability levels. The Ideas and evidence
section of the National Curriculum for science is an
excellent place to find starting points for enrichment
of all kinds.
Very able pupils are able to reflect on the ways in
which they learn (metacognition) and at least some
of the support that they need is in recognising this, in
applying it and in learning yet more ways of learning.
The National Association for Able Children in
Education (NACE) has published supporting material
in this area (see, for example, OBrien, 1998).

When differentiated work has been done in class,

maximum benefit is derived when pupils feed back
to their peers on what they have done. The experience
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Putting differentiation into practice


Integrating differentiation into normal teaching an example

Teaching and learning Electrolysis

The example shown starts with the teacher
demonstrating the normal electrolysis cell and
directly teaching the basic theory, including the
specialised vocabulary. From here, there are
several ways to go, all of which include different
pupils doing different tasks. In each case, the
teacher discusses with the pupils what they will
be doing, how they will be doing it and how it fits
in with the overall learning of the class. Pupils are
then expected (and supported) to make
presentations back to their colleagues as part of
this overall class learning.


Basic electrolysis


Pupils, and then pupils and teacher, discuss what
factors might affect electrolysis. Each group then
takes one factor to investigate. For example:
A Time
B Current
C Type of electrodes
D Distance apart of electrodes
E Temperature of the solution
This is exactly how Michael Faraday explored
electrolysis before formulating his laws, although
he appears never to have actually tried out the
Temperature of the solution! As each group
presents their results (preferably including
graphs), other groups make their own notes and
ask questions to help them understand the
factors that they themselves kept constant. When
they come to write up their own Analysis and
Evaluation they are then able to comment about
these factors and whether or not they are
important, quoting evidence to back up their
Enrichment and extension
Original source material and background
information on Michael Faraday and his times
can be used to enrich and extend pupils learning
when researching electrolysis (Piggott et al.,
1997). This takes some pupils into deeper work
on electrolysis, others into aspects of language,
others into the social mores of the times, and still
others into how scientists work. Ideas and
evidence obviously plays a big part in this
During the discussion section, the teacher guides
pupils into tasks that will interest and motivate
them. For example:
A Reading extracts from Faradays notebooks,
comparing them to todays versions and
attempting to recreate an original


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Pupils presentations


Reading letters between Faraday and

Ampere in English (nineteenth-century
C Reading letters between Faraday and
Ampere in French (nineteenth-century
French!) with the aid of the MFL department.
D Creating a role-play based on an interrelated
set of four personal stories.
E Using a basic timeline and other resources to
create an illustrated timeline of life in
Faradays times.
The results of each groups work are used to
create a class display for other members of the
class and other classes to learn from.


Developing the idea of

Looking at pupils ideas in science stemmed from
work started in the 1980s (e.g. Milner, 1986) when
severe discrepancies were noted between what was
expected and what pupils thought. This developed
through the 1990s (e.g. Duerden and Jury, 1993) so
that differentiation often seemed to mean removing
barriers to learning. This was taken to mean the need
to concentrate on the needs of those with learning
difficulties and a lot of successful development work
has resulted that improves classroom practice for all.
The main features of good practice in differentiation

Putting differentiation into practice

seem to be allowing pupils to do different things,

matched to their abilities, and then ensuring that their
work is valued by sharing their results with each other.
As we move further into the new millennium the
meaning of differentiation is also moving on towards
trying to match learning activities to the needs of all
learners (e.g. Naylor and Keogh, 1998), including both
those who struggle and those who need challenging
at the highest level.
Given that all pupils are expected to access the
National Curriculum, differentiation is about how we
can change what we do in order to enable all types
and abilities of children to do just that.

ASE Science Across the World: see for
Chapman, J. and Hamer, P. ed. (1998) Differentiation manual.
2nd edn. Plymouth: The Learners Co-operative.
DfEE/QCA (2000) Science: a scheme of work for key stage 3.
London: QCA.
Duerden, B. and Jury, A. (1993) Pupils with special
educational needs in mainstream schools. In ASE secondary
science teachers handbook, ed. Hull, R. Hemel Hempstead:
Simon and Schuster.
Milner, B. (1986) How is science teaching structured? In ASE
science teachers handbook, ed. Nellist, J. and Nicholl, B.
London: Hutchinson.
Naylor, S. and Keogh, B. (1998) Differentiation. In ASE
guide to secondary science education, ed. Ratcliffe, M.
Cheltenham: Stanley Thornes.

OBrien, P. (2000) The use of cognitive ability testing to set

targets. In Issues in science teaching, ed. Sears, J. and
Sorenson, P. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
Peterson, S., Williams, J. and Sorenson, P. (2000) Science for
all: the challenge of inclusion. In Issues in science teaching,
ed. Sears, J. and Sorenson, P. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
Piggott, A. et al. (1997) Pupil Research Brief: Michael
Faraday and electrolysis. Pupil Researcher Initiative,
Centre for Science Education, Sheffield Hallam University.
Sherborne, A. (1999) Express yourself: a young scientists
guide to giving talks. Pupil Researcher Initiative, Centre for
Science Education, Sheffield Hallam University.
Wellington, J. (2000) Teaching and learning in secondary
science; contemporary issues and practical approaches.
London: Routledge.

OBrien, P. (1998) Teaching scientifically able pupils in the

secondary school. Oxford: NACE (National Association for
Able Children in Education).

Andy Piggott is a science education consultant, leading in-service training, supporting science departments
and advising local education authorities. E-mail:

School Science Review, June 2002, 83(305)


Putting differentiation into practice


School Science Review, June 2002, 83(305)