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When I started teacher training in 2006, a huge part of developing classroom practice was about differentiation, and when I left the classroom at the end of 2021, it was still a huge part of everyday classroom instruction.
Towards the end of my time as a teacher, however, things started to stir and new reflections on this practice began emerging. What many were discovering was that when differentiation was done badly, the expectations for many lower-ability students and SEND pupils weren’t as high. As such, the term differentiation was phased out and the new buzzword ‘adaptive teaching’ came on the scene. But is this just a rebranded concept? Let’s find out.
What is adaptive teaching?
Though we may think adaptive teaching as a term is new, it’s actually been around longer than 2021 when it first appeared in the DfE’s Early Career Framework. In 1986, a study was carried out by Giyoo Hatano and Kayoko Inagaki. It was all about adaptive practice in the classroom.
Essentially, adaptive teaching as a concept describes a lot of the practices that are already going on in the classroom. Examples include reteaching content that hasn’t been fully understood, using flexible groupings and, ultimately, being responsive to how pupils are learning.
Though these practices have been around for a while, this umbrella term used to describe them as a whole is pretty new. It seems, however, that as a buzzword, adaptive teaching is a step forward towards learning and teaching that’s inclusive for all.
There are some practitioners who argue that differentiation was seen in this hopeful light too. But as we know, things are constantly evolving and revolving in the education sector. For adaptive teaching to be seen as a new concept that is not misused or confused with differentiation, it needs to be characterised in terms of what it actually means and looks like.
How is adaptive teaching different from differentiation?
There’s a worry among some experts that many people will presume that adaptive teaching and differentiation are one and the same. Though their goals and even some elements of practice do overlap, there’s an important difference.
Though differentiation started with the best intentions – making learning accessible to all learners – it quickly became standard to designate different tasks to learners of different abilities and, thus, often limited the lower-ability learners in terms of what they could achieve. Essentially, if a student is only given work at a grade 5 level, they won’t be able to make progress beyond that level and are, as such, “written off” in terms of the top grade they can achieve. Adaptive teaching seeks to change this grade/level limitation problem that differentiation ended up being.
In some ways, it’s like going full circle. When differentiation first started, it was often in the form of a help sheet or teacher support; towards the end of my 15 years in the classroom, I was creating three or four different lessons for each class with the lower ability ‘relegated’ to an ‘easy’ activity. Despite having the best intentions, the DfE has now realised that perhaps this wasn’t the best form of differentiating learning at all.
What I really like about this change of terminology and practice is this: the focus is not about difference but about accommodation. Where differentiation focused on an arbitrary and presumed difference, adaptive teaching provides support when it’s needed and not just because a child is on a SEND register or is autistic, for example. However, adaptation does include things that differentiation did intend to achieve, but there’s also less too.
To summarise, adaptive teaching would mean all pupils are aiming towards the same lesson objectives but there will be scaffolds to support anyone who needs it (and teachers won’t presume who those pupils are). Differentiation on the other hand would have different lesson objectives or tasks for pupils and teachers would decide in advance who would be doing what.
Is adaptive teaching important?
Adaptive teaching is crucial. Unlike differentiation, which just addressed struggles (often predicted struggles), adaptive teaching looks at the reasons why a pupil might be struggling with a particular task. As such, it is crucial in making sure that all pupils achieve the best outcomes possible.
Here are some reasons why adaptive teaching is important:
- The classroom is more inclusive and all children’s needs are addressed. Research has shown that inclusive education is beneficial for academic achievement and social skill development.
- Teachers are better able to understand prior learning, which means they can plan future lessons more effectively.
- Teachers can identify barriers to learning and plan for them.
- All children are provided with equitable opportunities to learn. Being adaptive during a lesson means more pupils are going to achieve better outcomes.
- All children have a chance at success. They’re not presumed unable to access an activity.
Strategies for adaptive teaching
For most people, it’s hard to understand or visualise what adaptive teaching looks like. Above all, the classroom environment needs to be inclusive and warm with all students feeling valued and respected. It will be hard to practise adaptive teaching without this basis.
With a purposeful classroom environment, you then need to consider curriculum planning. Effective planning of the curriculum will consider skill progression as well as a need for teaching to be adaptive in the moment. Lessons and content will be arranged to consider possible challenges and barriers. Teachers will consider how pupils will access the learning and be supported if difficulties crop up.
When it comes to challenge, many people wrongly believe that the level of challenge with adaptive teaching is lower because the needs of all learners need to be considered as a whole. This isn’t the case. Rather, the challenge should be pitched at the right level.
Formative assessment is essential for adapting teaching as you go as well as being used to improve outcomes. This could come from skilful questioning, for example.
Here is a selection of activities you might see when adaptive teaching is in use:
- Content or questions being rephrased.
- Language adaptations to help all learners grasp concepts.
- Showing examples of a ‘finished product’, i.e., WAGOLLs (what a good one looks like) but with ‘deconstructions’ to explicitly show how they can get there.
- Putting key points in bold or making them more visible in a different way.
- Using keyword prompts.
- Having flexible and temporary groupings to help scaffold learning.
- Breaking down instructions in a step-by-step format.
- Making sure feedback is both challenging and specific and that learners actually have time to process it and respond to it.
- Having all students complete the same task – no differentiation of tasks or questions. Instead, providing scaffolding in the form of starting points, extra cues or stem sentences (with the idea that these can be taken away over time).
Ultimately, one key component of an adaptive classroom is communication. Knowing who the learners are, their backgrounds and what makes them tick is key to knowing where they might need support.
Having a classroom where nothing is presumed (level or ability, for instance) means that anyone can learn how to achieve the highest level of understanding, despite their target grades.
Benefits of adaptive teaching
There are several benefits of adaptive teaching for both students and teachers.
Here are some of the main ones:
1. Adaptive teaching increases student engagement. It provides students with a personalised learning experience that is tailored to their needs. It means that students are more engaged and motivated.
2. It improves learning outcomes. Adaptive teaching seeks to provide all students with the support they need to succeed. All students will better understand and retain information, which leads to higher levels of academic achievement.
3. Adaptive teaching supports diverse learners. With adaptive teaching, students’ different abilities and backgrounds are recognised but their ability to understand and carry out tasks is not presumed. Support is there if needed, but there is no ‘easy task’ for low-ability students to do instead.
4. It encourages student autonomy. With adaptive teaching, students have more control over their learning. They’re not given different tasks to do on the basis that they’re a high or low achiever. If support or scaffolding is needed, it will be given, but if students want to rise to a challenge, they’re fully able to despite their perceived ability or background.
5. Adaptive teaching is better for teachers. When teachers are planning one lesson for all rather than a few different lessons and activities, they’re able to better use their time. What’s more, when all students are attempting the same task, teachers have a better understanding of who has grasped a concept well and who hasn’t.
6. It correlates with better student performance. According to PISA, “adaptive instruction” is linked to better outcomes.
7. Adaptive teaching creates a fully inclusive classroom. With all students working on the same activity, there are no obvious groupings of higher/middle/lower attainers as in previous pedagogical teaching strategies.
Who does adaptive teaching help the most?
Generally speaking, adaptive teaching benefits all students but it may be particularly beneficial for students who have diverse learning needs and may require additional support to succeed.
Here are some examples of students who will benefit from adaptive teaching the most:
- Students with disabilities or learning differences: Adaptive teaching will provide them with a personalised learning experience that doesn’t limit their potential. Unlike being given easier work to do, with adaptive teaching, students are given support and accommodation like extra time, 1:1 questioning and support, and scaffolding resources.
- Students with EAL (English as an Additional Language): Adaptive teaching means that students who have English as an additional language can be supported to access the materials of their peers. Whether this is by bilingual instruction, visuals or other strategies.
- Higher attainers: Adaptive teaching means that students can work at an accelerated pace and can be challenged.
- Pupil Premium (PP): Students from low-income backgrounds often do less well at school. With adaptive teaching, PP students are able to have the same goals and aspirations as non-PP students but can be given support if this is needed.
Overall, adaptive teaching benefits all students but it is particularly beneficial to those with diverse learning needs, SEND, EAL or PP as it allows them to access the same lesson content and fully engage in the curriculum.
Challenges of adaptive teaching
Though adaptive teaching has many benefits, it does come with some challenges. Though it’s considerably less time-consuming than previous ideas of differentiation, it is still time-consuming to plan scaffolding and support. If a teacher has a larger class, this is even more of a challenge.
Often, there are also technology barriers. With adaptive teaching, the use of visualisers is often mentioned as a great tool to showcase WAGOLL (what a good one looks like) and to unpick how to get there. Obviously, this comes at a cost and it’s down to school budgets as to whether this is possible.
Limited resources are also a factor in a teacher’s ability to provide adaptive teaching. One of the best resources to have access to for adaptive teaching is a teaching assistant. However, support staff aren’t often readily available or affordable.
Finally, when it comes to assessments and exams, it can be difficult for students who usually require support to suddenly not get it. They may feel they’re doing well in the class due to being able to access support but then become upset if they don’t manage to do as well as they hope in an assessment situation.
Overall, adaptive teaching requires a significant amount of time, resources and support to be effective. Teachers may face a range of challenges when implementing this approach, but with the right training, resources and support, they can help to create a more inclusive and effective learning environment for all students.
Above all, adaptive teaching promotes equality and diversity in the classroom. However, when you’ve been in the education profession for a long time, it can be easy to dismiss new strategies and buzzwords as repackaged techniques from the past. There is a danger that many teachers will see adaptive teaching as a repackaged differentiation, but there are key differences. For this reason, it’s essential for school leaders to provide appropriate CPD to teachers so that they understand what adaptive teaching is and how to implement it in their practice.