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Differentiation, an essential part of ISUtrecht’s philosophy, involves offering bespoke content, processes and product options so each student receives personalised learning targeted at their individual development needs. Students should feel safe to take risks to grow, not be bored because they have mastered a concept, or overwhelmed and not know where to start; differentiating classroom experiences is key to this.

-By Charlotte Smith and Iria Asanaki, KG Purple 

Why is differentiated learning important?

Simply put, differentiation means each child receives an education that is meaningful, significant and appropriately challenging. It ensures all children continue to develop no matter their achievement level.

In our KG classroom, where students are aged 4 to 6, it is clear each child’s learning needs are different: there is a big difference in the cognitive and social development of our youngest and oldest students! However, true differentiation does not use age as a label to identify what children should learn. We take a personalised approach to meet each child at their current level of development. Through differentiation, every child is engaged and active in learning. Differentiation minimises behavioural concerns and improves student outcomes. 

How do ISUtrecht teachers differentiate?

The first step teachers take to differentiate is finding out where our students are now in their learning. We use assessment to determine our students’ existing skills, knowledge and misconceptions. This can take the form of observations, written pieces, drawings, whole-class discussions or formal assessments. 

The assessment data allow us to identify patterns and plot where our students are positioned in comparison to typical development continuums and expected curriculum outcomes. 

We then plan learning experiences that target each point of need. This means students work in small groups, with individualised materials, task design and learning goals. In KG our teaching assistants are critical in supporting children across these tasks, for example: 

Differentiated content: In mathematics, students are learning to represent spoken numbers using objects. We are using legos to make towers. However, this activity is adjusted for each child’s learning goal with some children making numbers 1-5 and others making numbers 5-10, 10-20 or 20 and above. 

Differentiated process: KG Purple are writing about families, using labelling to begin writing. Some students are ready to start right away, and others need more support. We guide this group using a gradual release of responsibility, or “I do, we do, you do”. First, I draw and label my dad. Then we all draw together starting with our mum. I ask if they can hear the first sound in ‘mum’, then show them the letter ‘m’ for mum to label. Next, they draw a picture of themselves without my modelling, and label it independently. At the conclusion of the lesson, every child’s family page is put together to make a book, which we read and celebrate together.

Differentiated product: During morning stations we set up a range of activities where each child works independently at an activity of their choice. The activities may involve the same concept or skill, but in different ways to suit the variety of needs in the class. For example, children can develop their fine motor skills through beading or cut and paste activities like making a collage, or they may need more complex tasks like handwriting or practicing tying their shoes. All children are developing fine motor skills, but at different points along the continuum. 

Where to next?

Most importantly, teachers reflect after a lesson to understand the impact of our differentiated practices. During our collaborative planning time, we meet to review our assessment and discuss the lesson. This guides our next lessons: Are there children who would benefit from one-to-one support? How can I stretch students who are already proficient? How did you differentiate your lesson, can I learn from you? Should we explore this in another way? Are we ready to move to a new concept?

How do students feel about differentiation? 

When discussing differentiation with families, I am often asked how children feel when they notice they are not doing the same learning tasks as their peers. The answer is that when creating a positive and diverse classroom environment, we celebrate that all students learn in different ways and turn their challenges into strengths. Our students come to expect to be engaged on different tasks with different people through the diversity of their school day. Most importantly, effective differentiation means all children feel successful and accomplished at school!