After a recent OFSTED, there’s been a whole-school focus on directed differentiation. Many of us use differentiation activities where students get a choice of tasks or where there is an optional extension task or supportive resource to help students who are struggling. Much to our horror, the inspectors seemed to be looking for heaps of evidence in their observations of teachers naming students specifically and asking them to do particular tasks during the lesson.

This makes me a little uncomfortable.

I believe there is definitely an argument for challenging our students to do work which we know is within their capability through directed differentiation, however I cringe inwardly at the idea of students who are already in ability sets being labelled as being at the top, or bottom of the class. I’m leading a research and development group at my school which aims to look into this issue. For now, here are some tips on thing you can do to differentiate, although for my part, I may sick to the more subtle options until my mind is changed!

Here are some things you are probably already doing in your classroom, which can be highlighted on the lesson plan as differentiation:

Thoughtful groupings
Seating plan – placing students where they can focus best
Setting flexible tasks that allow for creativity
Providing examples / modelling
Teacher circulation
Thoughtful questioning
Follow-up questions
Including examples in your explanations that are relevant and interesting to your students
Paired work for peer support
Choosing students to answer specific questions
Differentiated learning objectives and success criteria
Use of challenging word banks
Whole-class feedback and consolidation of learning
Carousel activities
Use of a range of learning styles
Personalised target-setting
Self and peer assessment
Personalised formative feedback
Recap previous learning


Games and Quick Activities for the Classroom

I like to have a little toolbox of ideas for games and little activities that can be incorporated into lessons to wake the sleepyheads up. Here are some of my favourites that have been tried and tested.

1. Snowball: students write 3 key words from a topic onto a piece of paper, then scrunch it up, and (on the teacher’s say-so) chuck across the classroom! They then pick up a snowball, un-scrunch, and the game continues until they’ve run out of ideas. One student is then selected to read out their snowball.

2. Who Am I? Ask one brave student to come up to the front. Write the name of a key person or concept on a sticky note and stick it to the student’s forehead. The volunteer then asks the class questions about who or what they are, and the class can only answer with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The student who guesses using the least amount of questions wins!

3. The Rule in the Room. One student is asked to leave the classroom, while the rest of the class comes up with a rule that they all will adhere to when they return. The student must guess what that rule is, e.g. ‘touch something blue at all times’. This one’s just for a bit of fun!

4. Smurf! Again, a bit of fun, I play it at the start of lessons on verbs. One student leaves the room while the class decides on a verb or verbal phrase which will be kept a secret and only referred to as ‘smurfing’. Whne the student returns, he or she asked questions to find out what smurfing is. E.g. smurfing might be ‘changing a lightbulb’. They may ask questions such as ‘Do I smurf on a daily basis? Do both men and women smurf? Etc. Hilarity ensues!

Snazzy Starters and Bell Activities

Cover of "The Little Book of Thunks: 260 ...

Cover via Amazon

The 2012 Ofsted criteria for an outstanding lesson states that “Pupils demonstrate excellent concentration and are rarely off-task,” and this should start right from the moment that the first student enters the room, which is why ‘bell work’ is s great idea. In ‘The Perfect Ofsted Lesson’, by Jackie Beere – a great little book that can be downloaded cheaply onto your Kindle, or bought in paperback – Beere points out that “students should expect to start work as soon as they come into the classroom without you directing them… it neatly shows how you are completely and effortlessly in control.” I would also add, that it is said that independent, student-led or group work should make up around 80% of your lesson – a tough ask – and so you might as well start right from the word ‘go’.

Quirky bell activities that are designed purely to wake the students up and get the little grey cells working can be fun and useful, however, in lessons where you are being observed, I do believe that every part of the lesson should be linked to prior learning and / or the learning intentions.

Here are some suggestions of bell work I’ve collected from ‘The perfect Ofsted Lesson’, and my reading in general.

  • Thunks: Ian Gilbert’s ‘Little Book of Thunks‘ offers a goldmine of beguiling questions with no right or wrong answer. Some examples are: Does a goldfish know it is your pet? If you always got what you wished for, would you always be happy? Which is heavier: an inflated or deflated balloon? What has the most freedom – an ant or a school child?
  • Work for, party with, or send to the jungle? Set pairs a discussion task where they say what they would do with the following and why, e.g. Prince William, John Terry, Russell brand
  • A Curiosity: for example, a box where students have to guess what’s inside. I did this with a year 8 class studying war poetry. I brought in an antique hairbrush set in its original box, which was presented to a woman for her 21st birthday just before WW1

Here are some ideas from ‘Pimp Your Lesson’:

  • The Beach Ball Trick: throw a beach ball around and ask each student who catches it to recap something from the last lesson / name one key piece of German vocab learned last lesson, etc.
  • Secret Mission: disguise pair or group activities by putting them in envelopes and presenting them as ‘secret missions’. You can also show differentiation by tailoring tasks according to ability
  • The Rule in the Room: while one pupil waits outside the classroom, the remaining students are given a rule which will govern their behaviour. On re-entering the room, the student must ask random questions and try to guess the rule in the room, e.g. English: participants must use alliteration in their speech, Science: students use a word that can be associated with digestion, etc.
  • Mind the Gap: use mini whiteboards and read something to the class referring to prior learning. Miss out a key word and have students write the word on their mini whiteboards and hold them up
  • Bumps: this retro party game can be adapted so that students must identify examples of a particular concept as they listen to you read a text

Another sneaky way of getting that tick in the Ofsted criteria box is to incorporate ICT. Remember, however, that ICT should only be used to enhance learning, not distract from it. “Resources, including new technology make a marked contribution to the quality of learning”

  • Blockbusters: on the teachers direct website, you can create your own interactive blockbuster quiz before the lesson
  • Create a random-o-meter with thunks on (see above) using a power point presentation set on slide show setting with the time reduced to 0 seconds

Starters and bell activities are opportunities to be creative and wander off the beaten path of the curriculum for one delicious moment. Enjoy it!