Posted in collaboration, Differentiation, education, engagement, Sandy Warner, thinking

Differentiation in the classroom

binder cover
Image from Carroll K-12

During my last performance management meeting, my line manager asked me how do I differentiate in my classroom. I was completely thrown by this question, not only because I wasn’t expecting the question but also because I hadn’t really thought about what it means in the context of my teaching. I have certainly heard the word bantered around many of the PD that I have been to in recent years but had thought it meant individualised learning plans for every lesson for every student in my class which then catered for their every learning need. I have certainly tried to do this in the past and ultimately abandon it because it is so time consuming and exhausting. I had a real sense of guilt that I wasn’t doing enough for my students.

So I mumbled a response that basically went along the lines of grouping students and getting support for those that were struggling and hoped that it would be a satisfactory answer. I’m not sure that it was but the conversation moved on and I had a sense of relief that that part of the meeting was over.

Fast forward to today and our school had a student free day so the staff could work on developing their understanding of student differentiation.

Initially we had to complete the following chart to get a snapshot of our personal understanding and beliefs on what we knew about differentiation.


We also explored the myths  around what people thought differentiation is or isn’t by completing a simple group activity which created great conversations around our own beliefs.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The staff then looked at the work Carol Ann Tomlinson has done on responding to the needs of all learners from her book titled “The Differentiated Classroom”. I really like the chart below that Melanie Jones created by adapting Carol Tomlinsons’ chart.



You can get a snapshot of Carol’s work on differentiation in her video below;

The questions were then posed to us around What are your learners strengths? and What are your own strengths? We completed a Multiple Intelligence Quiz to establish our own learning strengths. My results indicated that I was highest in interpersonal skills which surprised me and interestingly was the highest percentage result for our staff. I also came out strong in verbal/linguistics and visual/spatial which I think is more like my strengths. I was not surprised at all that musical was my lowest. I think it would be really interesting to get someone else’s perspective to gauge a point of reference.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


I would really like to do this with my students to get a stronger understanding of their strengths as well.


“Formative assessment doubles the speed of student learning”

Black and Wiliam

We then looked at what kinds of assessment we are using to inform our student’s learning and provide feedback to improve their learning and understanding.  We were given the opportunity to reflect on our own recent assessment strategies;


This task clearly showed that whilst I used a range of summative and formative assessments in my classroom, I am stronger in the formative assessment of my students. However I think there is a place for both as students need to be exposed to summative assessments to develop the skills they need to participate successfully in Mandated tests such as Naplan. There is always room for improvement. I would still like to broaden the way I do formative assessment in my classroom and I really like this post on Edutopia on 53 ways to check for understanding.

So what is the differentiated classroom? I think Carol Tomlinson summarised it perfectly in her “Line of logic for Differentiaon Instruction” below;

Screen shot 2014-09-09 at 6.04.04 PM

For me the day was both a fundamental shift in my understanding of what differentiation was, as well as reaffirming, in that it made me realise that I am on the right track and that I do differentiate in my classroom. I do have high expectations for all my students, I provide continuous assessment for my students, I use flexible grouping and develop tasks that have a range of intellectual demands (although not as often as I would like!), I do ‘teach up’ rather than dumb down, I provide opportunities for students to develop inquiries and problem solve. I provide opportunities to celebrate individual successes and negotiate with students how they will present a product of learning. I establish my classroom so that it provides structure and routines with a variety of working areas that foster a supportive and engaging learning environment for all my students. I do so much more.

Posted in collaboration, education, engagement, Flexible learning environments, Sandy Warner, students

My “New Classroom”~ embracing Flexible Learning Environments

This term has seen a major change in the physical environment of my classroom. Inspired by Stephen Heppell, the recent EduTech conference in Brisbane and Sinan Kerimoski  from Margaret River P.S., I decided I wanted to create a more flexible learning environment in my class that enabled the students to work more collaboratively together and catered for the various learning styles in my class more.

I wanted to increase the learning opportunities and options available to my students and give them greater control over their learning through a variety of learning modes and interactions, thus providing them with greater choices on where, and with whom, they learn. I also hoped that by giving the students more choices of where and with whom they worked,  it would increase student engagement. I wanted the classroom to feel more comfortable for the students and for it to be a place where they wanted to be rather than where they had to be.

In the later part of term two, I spent a lot of time talking to my students about what their ideal classroom would be like. We talked about what they liked and disliked about our current classroom and what we would change if we could. I then asked them to design their ideal classroom.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

While some of their ideas were a bit innovative, (I’m not quite sure a rocket ride would fit and a chocolate fountain would be yummy),  most of the students were able to contribute some viable ideas. I then asked them to tell me what would they take out of their current class and what would they put in if they could. I collated all their ideas and started making a list. Most students wanted some rugs/ or mats for the floor, a comfortable relaxation area, less traditional desks, more computers, more pillows and a classroom pet. They even wanted a naughty area/chair which is something we didn’t have in our classroom already, (and still don’t!)

I then went and spoke to my principal, who thankfully was very support and encouraged me to pursue these changes.  It was time to put some of these ideas into action!

After a few trips to Ikea and many, many hours of my school holidays, I finally transformed our classroom into a more flexible learning environment which was more comfortable for my students. I was also lucky to be able to bring in three computers from home for the students to use.

Below are the results. My only regret is that I didn’t take any before photos!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It was great to see the faces on the students and parents when they walked into our transformed classroom on our first day back in term 3!   I was delighted to hear the positive feedback from the parents and students.

This is what some of the students thought of the changes after three weeks;

Tiana – ” I feel really good because the back corner where the bookshelf is, the big palm tree looks cool. You can sit under the leaves.”

Beau – ” I like the changes because it makes me feel more comfortable and it doesn’t feel so plain”

Kyle – “I love the new setup. It is so much better than it used to be . It’s nice and relaxing.”

Courtney – “I like the classroom and I like to choose where I sit.”

Maya – “I feel really happy.  I really like the way our class is now. (please don’t change it back Mrs Warner) because I like it this way.”

Saxon – “It is good because it is cool with the bean bags.”

Tihana – ‘I feel really comfortable and it is easy to learn in. I think the little tables are working and I really like the reading area.”

and my favourite comment…..

Esther – “I like the class a lot because it makes me feel happy and want to learn.

I am really happy with the results and have also received some positive feedback from my colleagues as well. The students are working really well and seating is rarely a problem as students have more choice of where and with whom they sit and work with. Students move between lessons easily and are more engaged with each other. The flexible seating allows for more collaboration, especially in areas such as science and mathematics.

I will continue to monitor our flexible classroom environment and will ask for student and parent feedback at the end of the year.

Meanwhile I would love to hear from other teachers who are using flexible learning in their classrooms.

Oh and I am still working on the classroom pet!






At the Numeracy and the Australian Curriculum Conference over 300 teachers and leaders at the Fleurieu and Kangaroo Island SFD had the opportunity to listen to guest speaker Garry Costello (Head of Schools DECD) and keynote speaker Dr Thelmo Perso (Executive Director, Literacy and Numeracy Taskforce, NT Department of Education and Training)

Garry Costello spoke about numeracy in his address and of the need for teachers to develop a deeper understanding of students numeracy through improving their mathematical literacy and providing real life examples. Teachers need to not only provide these examples but, through explicit teaching and role modelling, show students how to break down these problems. He also spoke of the need for teachers to know where students are at in order for us to teach them effectively and improve student engagement by creating an inquiry approach to learning, by improving student attendance and fostering a strong learning culture within the school and the classroom.

‘All teachers are teachers of numeracy” and as such, Dr Thelma Perso challenged us all to look at numeracy deeper, across all curriculum areas and in real life examples. She explained that numeracy was a capability – you are numerate or not. It is not a subject you can learn or be taught. Rather in order to develop numeracy, students need to be taught some maths (the tool kit so to speak), they need to be shown how to use the maths in a broad range of contexts and they need to be given the opportunity to use it themselves, independently. Teachers need to ask them to make a choice about how they are going to do it. Finally they need to use it in ways which develop confidence and a willingness to try – this is the pedagogy.

“Numeracy is the capacity, confidence and disposition to use mathematics to meet the demands of learning, school, home, work, community and civic life.”  ACARA, 2008

So how do we make students numerate? We have to realise that it is the responsibility of all teachers ( not just the maths teacher). As teachers we need to model the use of mathematics to students everyday and be more explicit when it happens – we need to tell them “I’m using maths here” and not assume they will know it. We need to ask “Will some maths help here?”

Teachers can best teach students to apply their mathematics independently by using an application framework such as the one Thelma Perso presented  below;


  1. Clarifying is the first step in numeracy and involves students determining what is needed and asking “if some maths will help”. Teachers need to teach their students to ask questions so they know the context of the question. Students need experiences with real purposes and audiences that involve them reading and understanding the language used in context, so that they comprehend what they have read. They also need to understand that there are many answers to the same question. It is essential that students ask “Can I rewrite the problem in my own words?’ and “Would a sketch or drawing of the situation help?”
  2. Choosing gives students the opportunity to make a choice about what strategy they are going to use to answer problems. How are they going to use the mathematics that they know to solve the problem?
  3. Using. Students are given the time to apply the maths.
  4. Interpreting the answer or result enables the student to reflect on wether the answer makes any sense in the context given. The purpose and audience is just as important as the answer and so students need to think about the answer and check its validity. As teachers we need to ask them to see if they can visualise it?
  5. Communicating is vital to consolidate student learning as it gives them the opportunity to validate their results through having to explain or justify both the answer and the process used to get it through self reflection.

Thelma Perso adds that the Modelling, sharing and guiding of numeracy is the second component of developing numeracy. It is through the scaffolding and modelling of numeracy through speaking out aloud the ‘in the head choices’ that teachers make while problem solving, and using the above applications, that will guide students to become more numerate.

As teachers we are also accountable to ensure that our students are learning what they should be learning and that means developing methods to inform our pedagogy as well as intervening when we have students that are not.  Thelma Perso looked at how Naplan is a tool for improvement through a numeracy lens and the place of literacy, problem solving and intervention has in this improvement. It is important for teachers to understand that the NAPLAN numeracy test requires a deep understanding of numeracy and as such, are mostly problem solving questions which use real life language. The questions can, for the most part, be done by estimating and no actual ‘correct answer’ is needed.However, students do need to be able to read, clarify and comprehend the context of the question through language in order to answer it.  Thelma demonstrated this beautifully in her slide below of a numeracy question taken from the year 3 NAPLAN  numeracy test.


The implications for teachers is that we need to be teaching the literacy in the questions our students need to answer and we need to teach them how to break each question down  from the visual to the written to the notation.

In 2008, I led a group of Junior Primary Teachers in an Inquiry Project around “What is the meta- language of mathematics?” During this project, we looked at what the language is that we need students to know and understand when we are teaching mathematics. It was interesting that the JP teachers felt the need to simplify the language in the early years and I recall one teacher saying she never referred to one of the properties of a 2D shape as vertices. As teaches, we need to be aware that even young students can learn this language and a lot of relearning needs to happen later in their schooling if we don’t teach it from the start or make those connections later in their schooling for them. The JP teachers began to be more explicit in the teaching of the language of mathematics and its use. They also had a better understanding of where their students were going and what they needed to know before they moved into the middle primary years. We also looked at the then year 3 numeracy benchmarks test and broke down what each question was actually asking. This was a really useful exercise, as teachers developed an understanding of the complexity of problem solving questions and the need to role model the thinking needed to break down these questions.

The numeracy conference gave me the opportunity to reflect on the general capability “numeracy” in the Australian Curriculum. It reinforced for me, that my own teaching practice is sound.  That I truly endeavour to understand what it is my students already know before I teach them. I look at how I will assess what they learn before I plan how I will teach what they need to learn. While I can not solely teach my students numeracy, I develop their numeracy through continuous exposure to experiences that will allow them to develop these skills across all curriculum areas. I am explicit in my teaching and  role model my thinking whenever the opportunity will allow. I show my students how to unpack the language of a question so they can understand how to find a solution to the problem. I allow them many opportunities to practice these skills.

I was told at the beginning of the day, that if I took just one thing away from the conference then the day had been worthwhile. So what did I take away from the conference?  I think it was a better understanding of how a framework for developing numeracy, can support students in understanding the context of a problem and not only allowing them to choose how to solve it but being able to use logic to understand if their solutions makes sense and then being able to communicate this.

Numeracy and The Australian Curriculum