Differentiation in an inclusive classroom

Dr. Mark Winterbottom

In an ‘inclusive classroom’, there are no barriers to learning. Each student brings their own needs and strengths. In our daily research, we are told that it is a particular challenge to teachers to differentiate for those needs. We brought together science and humanities specialists – University Senior Lecturer in Science Education, Dr Mark Winterbottom; Assistant Head of Educational Opportunities, Simon Armitage; and Head of Teaching and Learning, Paul Ellis to discuss this challenge.  

‘Individual differences among students will always exist; our challenge as teachers is to see these not as problems to be fixed but as opportunities to enrich and make learning accessible for all.’ 

Approaches to learning and teaching Geography

Get to know your students

To give opportunity to all students in your class to learn you need to have a good knowledge of the children in your classroom. You need to understand their barriers to learning and how to get around those barriers for each individual.  

But how do you get to know your students? Most schools collect a lot of baseline data from their students, but if your school doesn’t collect much data, then to start you can run your own assessments. You can hold personal conversations with your students from the moment they enter the room. Perhaps asking what they’ve done that day, or the kind of things they enjoy doing. Then you’ve got a chance to build on their own experience in life. It’s important to remember there are a wide spectrum of needs in each individual classroom.

Technical language

Language is a particular issue, not just for children who use English as a second language, but first language speakers also. Science not only uses a lot of technical words, but also words that are common in everyday English, used in a very different way. It also makes very strong use of logical connectives, which are words that fit ideas together.

e.g. If the water is added to the solution, then the reaction will be X. ‘If’ and ‘then’ are the logical connectives in this sentence.

Scientists use those words to reason and to think about what they’re doing. We can provide writing frames to help students who struggle with these structures. For example, it could be as simple as ‘if X is added to ___ , then the reaction will be ___’. Getting students to think and providing them with the structure in which to write helps them to record and communicate their ideas effectively.

If your students are finding language a challenge, you could either start with terminology, or start with an example and how terminology might fit within that example. Most importantly you need clarity, and awareness that although everyday language can be useful in a subject like geography, it also needs to be used very carefully, because this can cause confusion. 

Take a look at our secondary science vocabulary blog for more ideas

Tiered tasks

How can you can start to cater to these different needs? You could try a tiered task. In a geography class for example you could start the lesson with a photograph of a volcano that you would ask students to respond to. The class can be split and some students will be asked to describe what they see, some students to explain what they see and other students might be asked to assess the consequences of the action that they see in the photograph –  a sequence of tiered tasks.

Command words

It’s important to think about the question words you use. For example, if you are using a video as your resource, you could have ‘watch the video’, ‘critique the video’ and ‘think about the video’ as your command words. This enables you to have various different levels of demand of task, in order to enable children to operate at a level appropriate to them.

Challenge your students

What about extending and challenging students? Students can think about ethical issues, such as the impact of flying on the environment. Ask them to think about consequences and try to really engage with the idea and think about the impact of certain factors on those ideas. This is beyond just describing the idea, which may be challenging enough to some students. It’s about engaging with the ideas, reflecting and creating an outcome from them that is perhaps distinct from the original learning objective.

‘We should create a good match between what we teach and how we teach it, and what the student needs and is capable of. We need not only to ensure access but also make sure each student receives the support and individual attention that result in meaningful learning’.

Approaches to learning and teaching Geography



About the author:

Mark, Simon and Paul are series authors and editors of the Approaches to learning and teaching series, created in collaboration with Cambridge International to support teachers in the implementation of practical pedagogy across a range of curriculum subjects. This blog post offers suggestions to help with differentiation in an inclusive classroom from the Approaches series. To hear more from Mark and Paul, check out the first episode of our education podcast

The Approaches series is now available in a whole series library pack, as well as a core subject pack. Check them out today if you’d like to apply consistent teaching approaches across your school.