The new differentiation

Innovative approaches to personalised learning in international schools

International schools are leading the way when it comes to effective differentiation, according to David Williams.

A recent ISC Research report highlighted how international schools are keen to keep on top of the demands posed by differentiated learning. It showed that 57% of respondents agree with the statement that whilst some teachers are skilful at differentiation, many are still struggling. Meanwhile only 29% believe that they have an effective means of meeting the needs of highly capable students, with 63% of teachers wanting more specialist support & services.

Juggling what goes on in the classroom in terms of ‘differentiation’ and how schools can manage the reality of individual learning plans for their students to reach their full potential is a challenge. My colleagues at Tes recently investigated this topic for an analysis piece and here’s what they found.

What is differentiation?

The term differentiation has come in for a lot of criticism and there are many ways to interpret it. Many people now prefer the classroom teaching term ‘adaptive teaching’ – where a teacher responds to a student’s needs rather than just ‘simplifying’ a task as a form of support. Rather than differentiating by task, adaptive teaching is about differentiating the same task for different access points.

At Tanglin Trust School in Singapore, senior school deputy head Claire Russell and head of learning support Gillian Sams use the term “responsive teaching” to describe the importance of meeting learners at their current level.

“The education world has come a long way since the days of differentiated worksheets or ‘some/most/all’ learning objectives,” they explain.

“Cognitive psychology has given us a greater understanding that while some students are better at learning than others, there are strategies we can use both inside and outside of the classroom to support students along the same journey, albeit in slightly different ways.”

Jennie Devine, head of primary at Montessori School Almeria in Spain, agrees wholeheartedly, noting that “no class is a monolith” and educators have to understand that they have a responsibility to adapt learning to give each child the best learning outcomes possible.

The demands of an international classroom

Adaptive teaching, responsive teaching, differentiation . . . however we articulate it, there seems to be a consensus that the international classroom demands a greater degree of flexibility when it comes to teaching and learning.

Previously, this personalised approach to learning might have been seen purely as a way to give struggling students or those with special educational needs more support. But increasingly it is also recognised as a way to challenge those students who are mastering skills more quickly – not least around language.

Of course, personalising learning is a good selling point for a school, as well as being positive for the pupil. And as the international market has become more competitive and attracted more diverse pupil cohorts, having staff who can differentiate effectively is no longer just desirable but essential.

Deploying a cognitive toolbox

At Tanglin Trust School, Russell and Sams are teaching students explicit learning strategies, giving them the opportunity to reflect on their own knowledge and differentiate between strategies that work well for them.

“We know from educational research that there are some common approaches that successful students use, and so our aim is to explicitly teach all of our students what these strategies are,” they say.

This approach, which Russel and Sams call “Learning to Learn”, gives students the power to differentiate themselves, using a toolbox of techniques. This might be through a task within a given subject in which they highlight a specific learning strategy, such as retrieval practice.

For example, for homework pupils may be encouraged to use different study techniques and then back in class, different retrieval techniques. They would then evaluate which was more successful and in this way build a toolbox that works for them. Russell and Sams explain that tasks such as these teach students to use a range of strategies independently.

Turning to technology

Of course, when it comes to differentiation and personalised learning, there is another tool that teachers can use – technology. This is something that Andy Puttock, principal at La Côte International School in Aubonne, Switzerland, says has become especially prevalent in his setting since the pandemic.

“We started to use technology much more powerfully as a way to feed back or share resources with students, which, of course, opened the way for even more personalised and differentiated learning,” he explains.

With over 40 mother tongue languages used by pupils across the school, he says, technology is especially useful when helping pupils overcome language barriers and enabling them to get their ideas across.  One way to do this is to allow students use iPads for voice-to-text transcription and translation.

“This means that those students are able to explore the great ideas they have without the pressure of writing,” he says.

He says this also helps the teachers assess the level of understanding and insight a student may have on a topic, because they can answer with the their full vocabulary, rather than “writing something less ‘interesting’ than they would have tried to without the tool”.

Furthermore, the iPads are also used to provide students with access to the Seesaw platform that teachers can use to “create differentiated activities for students and allocate them on the platform at the same time”.

With so many new technologies emerging, Puttock believes it is inevitable that tech will become even more central to differentiation efforts in international schools.

A school community approach

School community solutions are also important. As Head of Development for the new Tes Learning Pathways product, I found that having something that enables schools to create individual learning plans that enable staff and parents to work together is really useful. Schools told us that any tool that allowed better school to parent communication, letting parents engage in their child’s learning pathway in a more connected way was a real advantage.

Student goal – setting

Letting students set their own exam targets may sound like the extreme end of personalised learning, but it’s exactly what secondary principal Matt Seddon introduced at Bangkok Patana School in Thailand in August 2021.

He explained on a podcast on Tes last year that when he joined the school he felt it was not “being ambitious enough with data-driven student targets” for exam outcomes.

To change this, he set about shifting the focus from teachers simply trying to help a student to achieve the grade they are predicted to achieve, to students setting their own targets and the teachers working with them to achieve this.

“Some students will look at [what the data shows] and say, ‘We’ll just go with that,’ and others who may lack confidence or have other issues at play want to set it lower,” explains Seddon.

“Then you get others who might be looking at targets that are perhaps over-ambitious.”

So as an example, he cites a student who would be tracking for a B grade outcome saying they want to set a target of an A*.

“The teacher should have that conversation and say, ‘It’s low probability but if you’re telling me that you’re committed to this and you really want to work on this, then let’s do this,’ and they would sign off on that conversation.”

Once this has been done, the teacher would then work with the student to set appropriate work that is tailored to their chosen learning outcomes – something he calls a “boutique experience” for students and one that requires necessary differentiation.

Leading the way

In conclusion, whatever your thoughts on what the term ‘differentiation’ actually means, it is clear that international schools are leading the way in both what goes on in the classroom and what methods are used to personalise pupils learning experiences and outcomes and we would like to thank all the schools that shared their insights for this valuable topic.


David Williams is Head of Product for Learning Pathways at Tes. David has worked in the EdTech sector for 8 years, helping create products used by over 7,000 schools, including Class Charts, Safeguard My School and Literacy Assessment Online.  

To find out more about Tes Learning Pathways and other tools to help please click here



FEATURE IMAGE: by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Support Images:  Our thanks to Learning Pathways at Tes