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Differentiation vs Adaptive Teaching

Differentiation vs Adaptive Teaching

4 min read
  • The science of learning

Two different philosophies have emerged in education about how to help a large range of students: Differentiation and Adaptative Teaching. At first glance, they may look very similar, but upon closer inspection have a very different approach and potentially very different outcomes. And recently there has been a big shift from the former to the latter.

So, why is this shift happening? What are the key differences between Differentiation and Adaptive Teaching that are causing it? Read on to learn about:

  • What Differentiation and Adaptive Teaching are
  • How they differ
  • Why Adaptive Teaching is gaining in popularity

What is Differentiation?

Differentiation focuses on designing lessons, activities and assessments that suit different levels of learners. This caters for different groups of students learning at different paces. However, the technique of Differentiation requires you to decide, before the lesson starts, which activity a particular group of students will complete. This can place limits on student achievement by streamlining them into a path of a specific learning outcome.

What is Adaptive Teaching?

On the other hand, Adaptive Teaching is a more responsive approach that focuses on the class, whilst responding to the needs of individual students. It involves planning prior to the lesson, but also adjusting practice while actively teaching based on each student’s progress. This could involve modifying teaching methods, pace or resources as the lesson happens in response to student feedback or performance.

How does Adaptive Teaching differ from Differentiation?

Adaptive Teaching and Differentiation, while both aimed at enhancing student learning and catering to individual students’ needs, diverge significantly in their approach and underlying philosophy. Differentiation is more about pre-determined variation in teaching, while Adaptive Teaching is about real-time adjustment.

Differentiation traditionally involves preparing varied materials and activities in advance. While well-intentioned, this approach may lead to a lowering of expectations, inadvertently suggesting that certain students can only access parts of the curriculum. Instead of enabling learners, Differentiation can risk placing a ceiling on what students can achieve.

Adaptive Teaching, on the other hand, champions a responsive, high-expectation strategy that adjusts to the needs of students in real time. This method relies on strong teacher-student relationships, ongoing formative assessments and a commitment to maintaining high expectations for all. Adaptive Teaching can help ensure every student has the opportunity to succeed, reflecting your belief in the potential of each individual learner.

Ensure all your students are thinking hard with Adaptive Teaching. Equip your school’s staff with great Questioning and Scaffolding strategies.

2 key elements of Adaptive Teaching

Adaptive Teaching contrasts with Differentiation in its focus on responsivity and real-time adjustment. It recognises that students are likely to learn at different rates and require different levels and types of support from teachers to succeed. Two key elements can allow educators to do this successfully:

  • High expectations for all – The Pygmalion Effect, which is the term coined by researchers to describe the positive impact that high teacher expectations have on student performance, is fundamental to Adaptive Teaching. It starts with a viewpoint that all children can achieve and thrive, and our expectations can help with this.
  • Ongoing formative assessments – These allow for in-the-moment adaptations to teaching based on real-time understanding of student needs. This is why checking for understanding is arguably the most important of Rosenshine’s Principles. For more tips on questions to ask to help with this, see our blog 4 Questions to Check for Understanding.

Before teaching begins, anticipating barriers such as different levels of prior knowledge and planning to address them is crucial. This could involve pre-teaching vocabulary or having students read a text in advance. During teaching, it’s about making in-the-moment adaptations, like re-explaining a concept in a different way or providing additional examples to clarify a task.

To help your staff learn more about Adaptive Teaching and discuss how to best utilise it at your school or college, get in touch about our Adaptive Teaching: Questions and Scaffolding Teacher CPD training today.

4 things to consider if you’re prioritising Adaptive Teaching

Incorporating Adaptive Teaching requires a thoughtful and responsive approach, tailored to meet the unique needs of each student. So, here are some evidence-informed methods you can use…

1. Utilise Scaffolding

Break down learning into manageable chunks, providing support at each stage. The goal is to gradually reduce this support as students become more independent.

2. Formative assessments

Ongoing assessment helps gauge student understanding in real-time. This allows for immediate adjustments to teaching strategies, ensuring that instruction is always aligned with student needs.

3. Foster strong relationships 

Develop a deep understanding of each student’s learning journey. This involves not only academic assessment but also building trust and rapport, making it easier to identify when and how to adapt teaching methods.

4. Maximise use of teaching assistants

Collaborate with teaching assistants to provide additional, targeted support where needed. This can help to ensure that all students have access to the help they require.

Final thoughts

The shift from Differentiation to Adaptive Teaching represents a profound change in how we support all students. It is easy to say, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is hard to do. Underpinning it are popular and well-researched areas; high expectations, scaffolding, and modelling, to name a few. Hopefully with great care and consideration it can provide a way to help all students thrive.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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