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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 to work through the lessons or sessions at a pace and level that is more suitable for them.

  • At the beginning of each page, the instruction is given in red or highlighted to ensure that the students know exactly what is expected of them.

  • Instead of asking for definitions, there are fill the gap activities to complete.

  • When asking for researched information or for comprehension tasks, there is always an

example given.

  • When providing information that is essential to the lesson, it is simplified into bullet points, or

the key information is highlighted.

  • Simple things such as asking for one example instead of three can prevent the students

feeling overwhelmed.

Visuals and mind maps have also been used to keep the students engaged in the content and reduce the amount of writing that they have to do (which can often cause them to fall behind). The booklet allows the students to look back on the work they have completed if they have forgotten something or need information from previous sessions.

The same ideas have been used when differentiating the virtual PSHE lessons. Top image, before differentiation, bottom image is after.

Practical Tips for Setting Differentiated Work in Teams

Setting differentiated assignments for targeted students

When you create your class notebook lessons, you can duplicate a notebook page and make some changes to set for particular students. This is what Grace has done in the previous example.

In the assignment setting window above, you can see the highlighted icon that you select to achieve this. Students will crucially not know that you have set them a different assignment from their peers unless you are not subtle in the title!

Unfortunately, a question I frequently get asked, is can you save a subset of students for this to happen for each assignment, and the answer currently is no.

Record voice notes to reduce reading

You can very easily insert voice notes on to class notebook pages which give you up to 90 seconds at a time to record. They are great coupled with a diagram and make it interactive. Here is an example.

Embed videos into your class notebook page to reduce cognitive load.

One issue students have been struggling with, is moving between resources. This all adds to their extraneous load and can feel overwhelming. To overcome this, you can embed any video resources within the notebook along with the actual task.

Here are the steps:

  • Firstly open up the notebook in Teams, then select ‘open in app’

  • You can see that the insert menu now has more options:

  • You can now insert into your notebook page a Stream video, a YouTube video or a ClickView video for students to watch seamlessly as part of the lesson. Don’t forget you can also insert a Form for a self marking retrieval quiz too.

Change the colour of the background to support dyslexic students

The British Dyslexia Association has some good advice about how to make written content as dyslexia friendly as possible, this includes changing the colour of the background from white to pale yellow. You can also achieve this in the view menu when the page is opened in the class notebook app. For more advice on making your content dyslexia friendly click here.

I hope the above helps not only your students with accessing the work, but you as well by reducing your workload.

Phil Heath


Saffron Walden County High School

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