Best Practice

Adaptive teaching or differentiation?

For years we have spoken about differentiation in the classroom. But now everyone is talking about adaptive teaching. Confused? Sara Alston reminds us that it ain’t what you call it, but the way that you do it
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In education over the years many trends and buzzwords have come and gone. One of the latest of these is the move from “differentiation” to “adaptive teaching”. 

The need to “adapt” our teaching for different students was cited in the Teachers’ Standards way back in 2011 – Standard 5 states: “Adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils.” (DfE, 2011)

And yet a best practice article 10 years later in SecEdAdaptive teaching explained: What, why and how (Bromley, 2021) – has garnered tens of thousands of page views and still appears regularly in our top 10 most read online articles showing that colleagues are still hungry for information.

While adaptive teaching is rightly regarded as an alternative to “traditional” forms of differentiation – which was often translated simply as giving different tasks to different students – making adaptations in this way is not new.

Is adaptive teaching not what differentiation should have been about all along? Indeed, that very same Teachers’ Standard adds that teachers need to “know when and how to differentiate appropriately, using approaches which enable pupils to be taught effectively”.

Many would argue that differentiation became something it should not have been. The shift in language to adaptive teaching perhaps helps get us away from some bad practice and to focus on what it should have been all along.


A rose by any other name...

Increasingly, the word differentiation has been made to carry a lot of baggage. It has become associated in teachers’ minds with excessive workload and, frankly, poor practice.

Fear of Ofsted and others wanting to see evidence that differentiation was happening has led over the years to monstrosities such as three-layer planning, multiple worksheets, static ability groups, and low fixed expectations for all.

Many “more able” children learnt to hide their abilities and skills because it simply meant that they were expected to complete more work than their peers. 

Meanwhile, the “less able” were quickly disheartened because they knew there was no chance of “catching up” to their peers or accessing more stimulating learning.

This never was and is not what differentiation should be about. Indeed, the 2019 Early Career Framework, which also advocates adaptive teaching, states: “Adaptive teaching is less likely to be valuable if it causes the teacher to artificially create distinct tasks for different groups of pupils or to set lower expectations for particular pupils.”

In the 2021 SecEd article cited above, the author states: “Whereas traditional differentiation focuses on individual students or small groups of students, adaptive teaching focuses on the whole class.” 

He adds: “Unlike traditional forms of differentiation which can perpetuate attainment gaps by capping opportunities and aspirations, adaptive teaching promotes high achievement for all.”

In our book, The Inclusive Classroom: A new approach to differentiation (Bloomsbury, 2021), Daniel Sobel and I argue for a “needs-based” approach to SEN and inclusion, focusing on children’s strengths and needs over any diagnosis.

We felt that the focus on labelling SEN penalised the many children unable to obtain diagnoses due to waiting lists or because they did not neatly fit into a single category. It also treated all children who did have a particular diagnosis as a homogenous group with the same needs.

This led to a deficit model of SEN that emphasised what children could not do and which ignored their individual strengths and needs. This can mean that a diagnosis reduces rather than adds to our understanding of individuals, obscures their needs, and inhibits our ability to respond to them appropriately. Needs not diagnosis is a theme I have written about previously in SecEd (see Alston, 2021).


Differentiation driven by SEN

This deficit model of SEN has also played its part in differentiation becoming driven by a response to SEN (and to a lesser extent Pupil Premium). At worst, this approach ignores that excellent practice for those vulnerable groups is excellent practice for all. 

As we argue in our book, in order to be successful inclusion needs to take less time, cost less, and be less stressful. It needs to be part of daily practice for all children, not a bolt-on marked by a separate box on a planning sheet for the few.

Children are not fixed: all have their strengths and needs and these will vary with time. Just because a child is in a “more able” group does not mean that they won’t struggle and need support in certain areas or at particular times.

Equally a child in the “less able” group will have strengths. They may, for example, excel at number work but struggle with shape work or vice-versa. Which group should they go in? Should the child who has wonderful ideas and a beautiful turn of phrase but who struggles with spelling and handwriting be placed in the top set and excluded from support for those areas or a lower set and denied the opportunities to extend their skills?

Unfortunately, poor differentiation negatively impacts children across the skills spectrum, particularly in secondary schools where ability in English or maths often leads to setting for a whole range of other subjects.


Core principles of adaptive teaching

In The Inclusive Classroom, the techniques and approaches we discuss focus on small tweaks and adaptations throughout each of the five phases of the lesson, all within a framework of quality first teaching – I have written about these lessons phases in a recent article (Alston, 2022). They are:

  • Entering the classroom and preparing to learn.
  • Delivering instructions and whole-class engagement.
  • Individuals working as a class.
  • Group working.
  • The last five minutes.

These adaptations are about knowing your pupils, including their individual strengths and needs, and responding with small adjustments and modification to promote inclusion, engagement, and learning. This is based on chunking the lesson and the use of on-going formative assessment – key elements of adaptive teaching.

Although, as with differentiation, there are differing versions of adaptive teaching, I would include the following core principles:

  • Adapting planning prior to the lesson.
  • Adjusting practice during the lesson.
  • Anticipating barriers and planning to address them.
  • Using on-going (formative) assessment.
  • “In-the-moment” adaptations.
  • Effective use of scaffolding
  • Effective use of teaching assistants (again, see my 2022 article).


Rejecting one-size-fits-all

Effective adaptive teaching is based on a move away from a set approach to teaching and towards a recognition that children need varying levels of support and differing adaptations at different points of the lesson.

To some extent this is being recognised in many local authorities by the rise of Ordinarily Available Provision guidance. This concept is grounded in the SEND Code of Practice and sets out expectations about provision and practice in mainstream schools for students with SEND when it comes to quality first teaching (the universal offer) and the graduated approach (targeted support).

While this kind of guidance acts as a useful reminder that quality first teaching includes tweaks, adaptations and differentiation within the ordinary delivery of lessons, it misses the subtlety that lies between what should be part of quality first teaching (adaptive teaching and differentiation) and what is SEND provision.


Let’s consider an example

Providing a visual timetable for a class should be part of everyday provision. Adaptive teaching will decide how this is presented for the class – pictures, a written list, a combination of the two – and how the information within each lesson is broken down.

Within the ordinarily available differentiation or adaptive teaching there will be some children who need an individual timetable because they are doing different things to the majority or because they struggle to see themselves as part of the larger group.

However, there will be others who need adult support, at an individual or very small group level, to break the timetable down still further, to understand when and how to transition from one part of the lesson to the next, and to manage their anxieties about such changes.

The amount and level of support needed marks the difference between “ordinarily available”, which includes differentiation/adaptive teaching, and the requirement for additional SEND provision.


A question of language?

To my mind, there is a danger that disputes about the language of differentiation, adaptive teaching or even “ordinarily available” are going to obscure the needs of the children. Further, it can distract from the recognition that effective teaching should be rooted in an understanding that not all children are the same and their needs vary between subjects and within areas in the same subject. Additionally, children are impacted by their experiences before they enter the classroom and their awareness of what may happen after they leave. 

Ultimately, effective differentiation and adaptive teaching are based in small tweaks and adaptations throughout the lesson. It also includes adapting the planning before anyone enters the room, taking account of the needs of the group of children who will be in the lesson, what they learnt previously, and how best to move their learning on.

This will include some group or individual support for those who need it and communication with any teaching assistants and support staff so they understand the learning and how to support it.

The five phases of the lesson with small tweaks and adaptations made at each stage to support and promote learning are not static but require an on-going response to meet the individual and group needs throughout the lesson.

Some will need to be in place as standard lesson after lesson, some will be implemented as “in the moment” adaptations, but the majority of these will be “ordinarily available” to all the children in the room in response to their needs at that time.


Final thoughts

Whether we call it differentiation, adaptive teaching or even ordinarily available provision, our teaching must respond to the learning needs of the children in front of us. We need to move away from the “steamroller” one-size-fits-all lesson planning and delivery that requires every lesson be taught exactly in accordance with the plan (or even the script) regardless of the needs or learning of the children.

The best definition of the difference between equality and equity I know is that equality is providing everyone with a pair of shoes, while equity is providing everyone with a pair of shoes that fits. We need to use differentiation, adaptive teaching and all the other techniques we have available to us to ensure we identify and respond to children’s needs so that they are able to learn effectively within a supportive, inclusive environment.


Further information & resources