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How can teachers differentiate online tasks during the Covid-19 crisis?

How can schools can be optimised for students that don’t have the raw intelligence other students have? SENCO, Phil Heath discusses why is it important for teachers to plan for differentiation in the online lessons and tasks they set in order to support all students to learn from a distance.

Each student is different

In his excellent book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham includes a chapter on how we can support learners who might not grasp concepts as quickly as others. In chapter 8 he reflects on how we can support these students with homework, but this reflection is equally important for the type of learning now going on at home. “All students must learn new skills as homework becomes more demanding – skills of self-discipline, time management, and resourcefulness (for example knowing what to do when they’re stumped). Students who are already behind will have that much more trouble doing work in their own at home, and they may be slower at learning these skills. Don’t take for granted that your students have these skills, even if they should have acquired them previously.” Willingham, 2009

The importance of differentiation

As professional teachers we all understand the importance of differentiation in ensuring that our lessons are accessible to all learners. We are all used to differentiating our instructions for our classroom materials and, importantly, in using feedback from our students to tweak how we explain something or how we support a student. But how do we do that effectively without the students in the room?

Supporting SEND Students

“Differentiation has a broad meaning, as it includes any way in which you modify the content, presentation, environment or expectations of teaching and learning. It may be something which you have planned carefully, such as a specific activity, and it may also be something spur of the moment, based on a pupil’s response to teaching. Differentiation may be ‘big’ (eg using a Teaching Assistant (TA) to support a particular pupil) or ‘small’ (eg re-phrasing a question to make it simpler). Differentiation may be used to meet the needs of any pupil, including those with SEND but also including those who may be gifted in the subject area.” NASEN, 2018

As described above, differentiation is more than just a simpler worksheet, using a template or having a sentence starter. It is something we all do instinctively, symbiotically with our classes. We react and adapt at lightning speed to the needs of individuals, groups, classes. This is what makes us brilliant teachers; this instinct, this skill.

Recently we have been forced to work without this skill, this instinct. Blindly setting work for students. Planning for our weakest learners, for those that would find it hardest and trying to predict what they would need from us, without us being there to give it. Although this is necessary at the moment, it does not give the same support. In a lesson, if a child asked a question or seemed confused, you would change your language, your tone and often use simpler language. Online, this looks very different. Rather than reducing language, more is used. Greater descriptions, longer sentences, more detailed diagrams. This prediction on our part as teachers is a manifestation of our honed skills and experience, our gut feeling about what our students need from us. This is what makes us brilliant at what we do when children are in front of us, when we speak to them, when we show them, when we softly change a word or two to help them get started. This very thing however, when communicated in writing, becomes a barrier, a mountain of language that must be understood before the task can be done.

Many students and families at the moment are struggling. They can see the hard work that we have put into lessons, they can read all the information and instruction, but they are still finding it difficult. Asking for more information, more instruction, more help, is too much for some. For parents and children alike, this is chipping away at already fragile self-esteems.

How can we help? Keep it simple:

  • Communication should be short and to the point.

  • Distributed practice is key. Revisit pieces of work 3,4,5 times, slightly changing them each time. (less planning).

  • No long project work (organisation is hard as is thinking about the future).

  • Record Live lessons, pause and rewind are huge benefits to be taken advantage of.

  • Use similar tasks each time reducing task demand, this will give more brain space for work.

  • Tasks should not take longer than 20 minutes. Make timings explicit to students.

  • Visuals to support any written work.

  • Extended hand in times.

  • Consider how information is shared, not all documents are easily accessible on iOS and/or Windows. Equally, not all formats work on tablets and phones as well as computers. Keep it simple.

  • Set easy tasks that can be completed independently, without parental support (great for self- esteem).

  • Include LSAs in all communication so they can keep on top and prepare and support as much as possible.

  • Praise for effort not just achievement

Finally, as a broader question to ask ourselves, ‘is this learning important to this child right now?’ if they cannot remember, learn, consolidate and generalise the information within the above support strategies, then it is probably safe to say, they could be excused from it. Could they be asked instead, to focus on core vocabulary, key events, revisit older or linked topics?

Hints and Tips

My colleague, Grace Moorhouse, has been working on differentiating the PSHE resources. These are some of her hints and tips.

In differentiating resources, her main goal is for the students to understand the content of the lessons. SEN students can find it overwhelming when too much information is given and when instructions are not clear. Therefore, she has created differentiated booklets. These booklets allow the students t