Introduction As the world of education develops,the push for differentiation has become a key element to ensuring progressionwith educators developing their own understanding that ability cannot be’mixed’ but instead that teachers would have to create a range of strategiesfor teaching that meet an abundance of differences such as age, motivation,learning style, specific learning difficulties, experience, gender and more(Petty, 2017). As these strategies have developed, ‘mixed ability’ teaching isnow known as ‘differentiation’. The National Pupil Database (2016) has shown anexisting gap in attainment, which has been an issue in education for decades.In the last ten years, the gap has been closing but at a slow and inconsistentrate.
The government has attempted to address this issue through the increasinguse of funding and targeted intervention programmes (Educational PolicyInstitute, 2017). Teachers need to be ensuring that provision is made to buildon the potential of all learners; meeting their level of understanding andpushing them to reach that next step to ensure the development ofunderstanding. In the late 70’s,Wynne Harlen (a science educator) proposed that for pupils to effectivelydevelop their thinking, the level of learning had to be matched according totheir levels of understanding (Blenkin & Kelly, 1981). To be a successful strategyto improve learning, differentiation must ensure success for all pupils,despite their array of differences (Petty, 2017). It moves away from theone-size-fits-all curriculum and recognises the differences in pupil attainmentand responds to these differences by effectively matching the teaching andlearning to individual needs (Tomlinson, 2003).
Education is about providingthe best curriculum in the best possible learning environment which canencourage the most satisfying achievements and progress for all pupils (Bearne,2006). It takes time to developstrategies that work best for each teacher but once these strategies have beendecided and the outcome deemed effective, the learning must be developed in arange of contexts in order for it to become successful (Slavin, 1993). Algozzine & Anderson (2007) stress theimportance of developing strong relationships with pupils to create a learningenvironment that excludes no child whilst providing the best opportunities forall. Differentiation has the potential to be an effective tool in improvingachievement and attitudes of pupils towards their learning (Brighton et al.
,2005). Arthur & Cremin(2014) state that differentiation is meeting the diverse needs of all pupilswhilst ensuring that what they are teaching meets the knowledge, skills andunderstanding of all pupils in a way that suits their individual differencesand previous experiences. They continue to add that differentiated resourcesare a key way of ensuring that individual differences are met. Furthermore,they state that once the range of learners have been identified, a teacher isthen able to plan and teach lessons that are both successful and effective. Hall (2002) proposedthat pupils need to have a range of options when expected to absorb information.He went on to state that this could only be made possible if instructionalapproaches to learning are varied and adapted to meet the needs of all pupilsin a classroom.
The purpose of using differentiation is to ensure that eachpupil is capable of succeeding and reaching their maximum growth in learning.This idea dates back to the work of Vygotsky (1978) and the zone of proximaldevelopment (ZPD). Research by Fisher et.
Al (1980) strongly supports thistheory and has found that students who are working in their ZPD were morelikely to develop a confidence in the concept they were learning. In a study conductedby Beecher & Sweeny (2008), differentiation was chosen as amethod to improve pupil’s learning by using the pupil’s own interests andadapting the curriculum to allow for differentiated instruction. They foundthat this was only made possible by offering staff development in howdifferentiation could be used, was made available and a significant amount oftime was devoted to it. Teachers were given training, modelling, coaching andplanning ideas of how to best fit differentiation into their lessons.
Theteachers learned how to differentiate the lesson content in a way that thestudents would learn best and the procedures to ensure this was possiblethrough their instruction. The Department forEducation (2011) created a new set of teaching standards that ensure ‘teachersmake the education of their pupils their first concern, and are accountable forachieving the highest possible standards in work and conduct.’ Differentiationis specifically linked to Teaching Standard 5: Adapt teaching to respond to thestrengths and needs of all pupils. Teachers are expected to know how and whento differentiate appropriately to ensure pupils are being taught effectively.
This piece exploreshow differentiation is used to effectively maximise the potential of writing,with the use of concrete resources. Firstly,it considers my reasoning for researching this topic and puts the research intocontext. Next, it evaluates the use of concrete resources and how this influencesthe progress of learning in writing and other subjects. Then it considers thepossible negative impacts that differentiation and the use of concreteresources has on the effectiveness of learning progression.
Finally, itevaluates the effectiveness of using differentiation through concrete resourcesin the context of my placement and the validity of this research overall. Context of the Setting Throughoutmy experience of working in schools, I have developed an interest in how theuse of resources effects the progress of learning for pupils in the classroomsetting. This is particularly prevalent in writing as there is so much emphasison the effect of concrete resources in mathematics rather than English.
Research suggests that concrete materials are an effective way to develop pupilthinking and understanding. They are used to assist teaching whilst developingpupils’ mind sets of what they are being expected to understand, not what wewant them to ‘do’ (Thompson, 1994). Researchsays that children who use concrete manipulatives ‘usually’ perform at a higherstandard than those who do not as the concrete manipulative gives theopportunity for the pupil to make sense of a concept as they learn from it(Sowell, 1989). I have seen how effective concrete resources have been duringmy placement, specifically for lower attaining pupils but also for the higherattaining pupils when learning a new concept. The research on the use ofconcrete resources for English is far less than that of mathematics which iswhy I thought it interesting to explore based on what I have experienced on myplacement. Thisresearch was conducted in an infant school in the South of England (named FISfor the purpose of anonymity).
The school is relatively large, as a fourform-entry and has roughly 350 pupils. The majority of children are from aWhite-British background with a low percentage of pupils receiving PupilPremium funding. The school was graded as ‘outstanding’ by OFSTED (2010) withan area of improvement being that the school work as a team to improve thelevel of mathematical explanation to achieve an even better outcome for allpupils.
Following this, I am aware of how the school progression documents for mathsare applied across the school to ensure that all pupils are being taught in themost effective way and that this is continuous throughout the school. Theschool is keen to share the pupils’ learning processes with them and this isexposed through the use of a learning wall. The school found that this was aneffective way of pupils seeing their own progression of learning and how it isapplied across the topic, so they then adapted this for English too. I found itinteresting how the CPA (concrete, pictorial, abstract) approach has beendeveloped to the English curriculum too which is why I have chosen to conductmy research around this.
Differentiation using ConcreteResources The Mathematics Mastery Programme is a whole-schoolapproach to teaching mathematics in order to raise the attainment level of allpupils. It aims to use a variety of sources to develop, sustain and deepenpupil’s understanding of mathematical concepts. (Vignoles, Jerrim & Cowan,2015). This same approach has been adapted by FIS to the English curriculum to allowfor pupils to structure a sentence using sentence cubes or pictures whilstdeveloping pupils’ concepts of what makes a sentence before applying this to awritten piece of work.
Much research shows that pupils who are given theopportunity to use concrete manipulatives (specifically higher attaining pupilswho use them to deepen their understanding) usually exceed those who do not.This applies across the levels according to year group, attainment level andtopic (Driscoll, 1983; Greabell, 1978; Raphael & Wahlstrom, 1989; Sowell,1989; Suydam, 1986). Concrete objects have been suggested to advance thethought processes for every level of pupil, from lower attaining to gifted.
Thisshows that the CPA approach could be applied across the curriculum to supportthe needs of all pupils to appropriately aid learning. Although the researchabove is quite dated, it is still sound and can be carried into currentteaching practice to ensure that teachers are using differentiation in a waythat meets the needs of both the lower and higher attaining pupils. The use of a manipulative enables pupils to’make sense’ of their learning whilst progressing in other areas such asretention and problem solving. However, this is only made possible when theiruse is fully understood and carried out appropriately by teachers (Sowell,1989).
The approach uses the kinesthetic learning style of ‘learning by doing’and has been notably effective for the development of key skills and conceptsas pupils engage and explore these manipulatives to deepen understanding ofspecific concepts by constructing meaning and understanding through the use ofthem (Hoong, Kin & Pien (2015). The teacher’s role in using this approachis to guide the pupils through each stage appropriately modelling how theapproach is adapted to each concept to fully develop the understanding of thepupils whilst providing necessary feedback and scaffolding techniques to expandlearning potential. Good & Brophy (2000) note that it is more effective toprovide necessary, high-quality resources for all pupils rather than to providethese resources for a select few individuals.
This way all children will beable to make progress from the same resources. From my experience, I have seenthe effectiveness of offering the same resources to all children as it developsthe child’s independence if they then choose to accept the resources, whetherit be to develop understanding or deepen it. Considering Piaget’s concretestage of learning, research has emerged of how children can best develop theirlearning when interacting with concrete objects. This has led to thedevelopment of the CPA approach to which practitioners believe that before anabstract thought can be learned, or the concept applied to a higher level ofunderstanding, children must develop an initial understanding of why and howthe concept works (Ball, 1992). Furthermore, Kennedy & Tipps (1994)believe that these such manipulatives make it possible for the most difficultof concepts to be accessed and therefore understood. They allow for children tomake the link between the abstract concept and a real object.
When children usea concrete material to aid them in problem solving, it is a means ofrepresenting an idea or thought process which will then be transferred to awritten/abstract version of that problem. This is the same as I have witnessed withwriting in English – for a child to write a meaningful sentence, it helps forthem to orally rehearse this sentence once it is visually represented. Ofcourse, this takes repetition and practice from both the modelling of therepresentation and the child performing the task themselves, to sustain theunderstanding of what the concrete resources are being used for. Uttal (1997)noted that children who are in the concrete-operational stage of learning areunable to perform mental operations on abstract ideas until the idea is madeperceptible by that child. Beulah (1961) considered the same effect ofusing concrete manipulatives in writing, derived from the research of the sameeffect from learning concepts in mathematics. He began to develop the idea ofusing cubes or blocks to represent the ideas and concepts in the written formof sentences.
He claimed it to be ‘a new and useful process’ to expand theskills needed for reading and word placement whilst developing the fluidity offorming a high-quality sentence that could be comprehended by the sentencestructure used. In my placement school, there is anemphasis on the use of concrete resources for both maths and English. Theexample that I have seen used and seen to be effective with the pupils I haveworked with is using a green cube to represent the capital letter at the startof a sentence followed by the complete, orally rehearsed sentence in adifferent coloured cube and ending with a red cube to represent the full stop.This way, children are able to make the sentence, rehearse it then write itwith the visual aid that the sentence block depicts. This idea has thepotential to be adapted to meet the needs of children of all levels and ageswhilst allowing for both high and low attaining pupils to visually representtheir thoughts before moving onto the abstract form that is ‘thesentence’. Differentiation of coloursand size, made readily available to all pupils, shows how the blocks can meetthe needs of all pupils whilst allowing for independence.
Difficulties of Applying Differentiationand using Concrete Resources A substantial body of evidence has developedwhich identifies the strain that teachers are faced with when expected to teachto the curriculum whilst delivering learning with resources at a multi-level tomatch different levels of attainment (Ayers, 1999; Fuchs & Fuchs, 1998;Kwong, 2000; Lo, Morris &. Che , 2000; Mamlin, 1999; Schumm and Vaughn,1995; Scott, Vitale &. Masten, 1998; Wang, 1992). Differentiation itselfcomes with many misconceptions. Some believe that to achieve differentiation,specific learning tasks should be an ‘addition’ to the lesson.
Petty (2017) disagreeswith this and states that differentiation should be what a teacher ‘does’ andit should not be possible to point out where differentiation lies in aclassroom. However, Hertberg-Davis (2009) notedthat many teachers appear opposed to the thought of differentiation as theybelieve that it is highly time consuming and takes more planning time in orderto ensure the lessons being taught are meeting the needs of all pupils. She goeson to state that of course, with more experience, this planning time becomesless as the teacher becomes more familiar to the processes involved in usingdifferentiation effectively in the classroom. More research from Westberg,Archambault, Dobyns, and Salvin (1993) shows thatdifferentiation is provided more so for lower attaining pupils than for thosewho are in the bracket of higher attaining/gifted and talented as teachersbelieve that pupils in those groups have a lower ‘need’ for differentiation.
Fullan(1993) believes that with the correct change in teacher attitude towards theuse of differentiation, all children will benefit from the use of this process,allowing for the ongoing challenge and thoughtfulness of learning to continuefor children working at all levels. This links back to Vygotsky’s ‘Zone ofProximal Development’ theory that pupils are likely to achieve their very best whenworking in this zone. When a pupil is engaged in their ZPD, their learning isadvanced at a level just ahead of their current level of understanding (Petty,2004). Fullan (1993) continues to note that teachers are not given the correctamount of training to allow for them to fully understand how differentiationcan be used effectively across all learners.
He states that the experience ofworking in a classroom and gaining experience does not necessarily allow forthe developed understanding of how differentiation can be distributedeffectively to develop pupil learning to a maximum. In order for deep andsustained learning for all pupils to be achieved, teachers need to deepen theirown understanding of how ‘big ideas, resources, sequences and questioning’ canbe used effectively. Until this happens, differentiation can not be aneffective method to challenge all learners (Robinson, 2008). When considering how multi-level resourcescan be used alongside differentiation to allow for all pupils to learneffectively, there is emerging research which shows why this may not be thebest option. Thompson & Thompson (1990) suggest that pupils use concretemanipulatives in a procedural manner, carrying out the correct steps butlearning little about a concept.
Pupils are less likely to be able to describethe concept they are learning, over how they used the steps taken to get to a requiredanswer. Although the CPA approach is developing rapidly, research suggests thatthe use of concrete resources alone, is not wholly adequate in ensuring thedevelopment of meaningful learning (Petty, 2017). Clements (1999) agreed andstated that concrete resources are not enough for pupils to deepen theirunderstanding if used alone but instead used alongside a variety of learningtasks to ensure that pupil’s thinking is guided by a teacher to ensuremotivation and engagement. Sowell (1989) found that pupils are less likely tolearn a new concept using only concrete manipulatives, but they could aid in achild’s understanding when used repeatedly and in variation. He goes on tostate that research into the effectiveness of concrete resources has beenunsuccessful in establishing a clear advantage over more traditional methods ofteaching.
Utall, Scudder & DeLoache (1997) made the point that even if theconcrete manipulative being used can assist the child in their initialdevelopment of learning by relating the manipulative to the concept, it doesnot guarantee that this learning, or the understanding of a concept will beretained. This is particularly noticeable when children are then expected toapply their learning in variation (Resnick & Omanson, 1987). Reliability It must be considered that my own personal observationsregarding concrete resources have been taken from an example of one school, socan not therefore be applied to other teaching practice.
Furthermore, I havetaken into account a variety of research as to both the positive and negativeuse of concrete manipulatives, most of which is quite dated and therefore cannot be applied to current teaching practice. However, I have noted how the useof concrete resources has developed dramatically over the years, and hope tosee further research and new ideas emerging in relation to this idea. As for differentiation,although the research I have used in this study has been taken across a periodof over fifty years, the research used is similar in its viewpoints and itshows that the idea of differentiation is an important one in education andwill continue to be so as education continues to develop.
Conclusion This piececonsiders how the use of concrete resources have developed and their importancefor pupil progression, specifically for understanding mathematical concepts.From my own observation of the application of concrete resources to English, Ihave seen how specific resources such as sentence cubes (multilink), word matsand pictures follow the CPA approach and have had a positive impact on theprogression of pupils’ writing. However, this has only been applicable to lowerattaining pupils. Although all pupils are given the option to use concreteresources in maths, only certain children are given this option for writing. Thislinks back to the research of Westberg, Archambault, Dobyns,and Salvin (1993) who noted that differentiation is provided more so for thelower attaining pupils, without considering how the same resources can be usedfor higher attaining pupils also. Although higher attaining pupils at FIS do not use sentence cubes orpictures to represent and orally rehearse sentences, they are offered word matswhich they use as a ‘word bank’ and to ensure correct spelling.
The National Curriculum (2014) has aset of expectations for writing, covering the two strands of transcription andcomposition and ‘it is essential that teaching develops pupil’s confidence inthese two dimensions’. The use of concrete resources specifically links in withthe second strand of composition as it aids in the development of articulatingideas, structuring these ideas before applying them to writing. I have seen howthe use of concrete resources have had an impact on pupils’ ability toarticulate and communicate their ideas before organising these ideas intosentences made specific to their writing. This piece hasdemonstrated how differentiation could become an effective tool to improve theachievement and attitudes of pupils’ learning (Brighton et al., 2005). It has delivered theimportance of using manipulatives so that pupils are able to ‘make sense’ oftheir learning whilst progressing in other areas of a concept.
However, it mustbe noted that for sustained learning to be made possible, it must be fullyunderstood by teachers delivering the learning (Sowell, 1989). Linking back to thestudy by Beecher & Sweeny (2008), effective differentiation can only bemade possible if teachers are given the correct amount of time and guidanceinto how to best use of effectively within the classroom setting. Of course,this was only ‘One School’s Story’ but this could determine the next step forteachers and the application of differentiation to ensure progress for all isachieved. In addition, fordifferentiation of concrete resources to be used effectively, the next step isfor teachers to deepen their own understanding of how these resources can beused to maximise the learning potential of all pupils.
Until this is madepossible, differentiation will not be an effective process to challenge alllearners (Robinson, 2008).