Designing for Differentiation

From HookED Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search


Designing for Differentiation


Designing for differentiation in inclusive classrooms.
(Note - This is the ICT version of the article) Pam Hook
May 2006

This article, describes a “design for differentiation" of content framework. The framework has been used in inclusive classrooms to develop teaching and learning strategies to address the individual and situational learning needs of all students, including identified and emerging gifted and talented students. By focussing attention on the cognitive complexity of student learning outcomes, and the integration of Information Communication Technologies (ICT), the framework supports the change to the National Administration Guidelines NAG 1 mandating that from Term 1 in 2005 that all state and state‑integrated schools demonstrate how they are meeting the needs of their gifted and talented learners. In addition, the design framework provides significant support for gifted and talented students who wish to take responsibility for differentiating their own learning.


The National Administration Guidelines[2] form part of the regulatory framework for New Zealand schools. A recent change to the National Administration Guidelines makes it mandatory for state and state integrated schools to address the diverse learning needs of all students in New Zealand schools including gifted and talented students. NAG 1 requires schools demonstrate how they are meeting the needs of their gifted and talented learners, as they are currently required to do for students who are not achieving, who are at risk of not achieving, and who have special needs.
Providing educational experiences appropriate to the needs of gifted and talented students has been found to be extremely challenging. Riley, Bevan-Brown, Bicknell, Carrol-Lind, & Kearney, suggest that when learning communities are achievement oriented, differentiation means that even the needs of gifted and talented students can be met in “inclusive and cohesive learning communities”, (Riley et al 2005 p31).
Meeting the academic needs of gifted and talented learners in inclusive classrooms through the qualitative differentiation of learning experiences requires teachers to

Teachers are often overwhelmed by the expectation that they must qualitatively differentiate the learning experiences of every student they teach. In strictly timetabled secondary schools, where classes change on the hour, this represents differentiating the learning experiences of over 150 students each day. Those who remain undaunted and are determined to find ways to differentiate learning experiences for their students are often disappointed by the lack of practical advice on the “how to” of differentiation. They complain that reference to a “checkbox audit” (Taylor 2001), bullet pointed “should be exhortations” for content, process and product (Riley et al 2005 p33), or a “fill in the gap”, core and complex, differentiated planning templates based on Bloom’s taxonomy, (Roberts, & Roberts, (2001) and Riley (2000)), are limited in their practical applicability to inclusive learning environments, and ignore the challenge and possibilities expected for integrating Information Communications Technology ICT in the Ministries Digital Horizons, ICT Strategy document, (Ministry of Education, 2003).

Overwhelmed classroom teachers ask us for practical planning strategies; strategies that can be easily implemented; strategies that will help them keep a sense of purpose and a sense of humour when teaching and learning in inclusive classrooms. They want to know;

In the rest of the article we will address each of these key areas in turn.

Identifying, and planning for power sharing.

Fraser calls for sharing power in differentiated learning environments where teachers;
have to take cognisance of their students’ concerns, questions, and prior knowledge. This could mean abandoning some of their own ideas. In sharing power, teachers are in fact thrust into the role of researchers, and investigators, alongside their students (Fraser, 2000, p. 35).

McWilliam’s “meddler in the middle” metaphor, (MacWilliam 2005), is reminiscent of Fraser’s call for “power sharing” and suggests a learning environment where teacher and student are mutually involved as co-creators of learning value. In many New Zealand schools a common solution to calls for “power sharing” is the adoption of “inquiry” learning, which is currently enjoying a “good thing” status. Teachers believe inquiry to be a manageable pedagogical approach to differentiating learning experiences to meet the learning needs of individual students in inclusive classrooms.
The role of both teacher and student, should be identified when planning differentiated learning experiences that allow “power sharing”. It is our experience that Herron’s four levels of inquiry, (Herron, 1971), when aligned to and McWilliam’s “the meddler in the middle” co-creators metaphor, (McWilliam 2005), shown in Table 1, bring a much needed clarity to “power sharing” approaches to design for differentiation.

Table 1 Levels of inquiry, aligned to probable teacher belief system and teacher role

Four Levels of Inquiry
after Herron (1971)

Probable teacher belief system
Teacher role
Level 0:
Confirmation/Verification [Problem, procedure and solution given]
Behaviourist learning theories
Sage on the stage
Level 1:
Structured Inquiry [Problem and procedure given]
Behaviourist and or constructionist learning theories
Sage on stage and or Guide on side
Level 2:
Guided Inquiry [Problem given]
Constructivist learning theories
Guide on the side
Level 3:
Open Inquiry [Students investigate their own topic related questions ]
Connectivism or Co-creator learning theories
Meddler in the middle

However, the telling question for teachers planning for a “power sharing” inquiry based learning environment is

Do gifted and talented students who experience inquiry based learning environments have an understanding that is deeper, more integrated, more coherent and at a higher level of abstraction than students who learn in “one size fits all” environments?

The suggestion seems plausible but the causal linking of a curriculum and pedagogy for inquiry, with enhanced learning outcomes for gifted and talented students in regular New Zealand classroom environments, is difficult to substantiate with valid and reliable research.

Schools looking for research evidence on the efficacy of an inquiry based pedagogical intervention, designed to differentiate the learning environments, are poorly served by the research literature. Curious teachers struggle to find more than a surface account of what was done, or anecdotal reporting on participants initial enjoyment of the inquiry based learning experience, the “I have never been so excited about my teaching” and “my brain was stretched” teacher and student responses. Reviews of both national, and international, literature reveal an evaluative reliance upon anecdotal reactions to pedagogical interventions designed to meet the diverse learning needs of students. Too often the research methodology and sample sizes used means much of it is not repeatable, or able to be generalised to other settings.

Asher’s cautions regarding the gifted and talented research literature could well have been written about inquiry based pedagogical intervention. “The published literature in the field of gifted and talented education is inherently flawed.” Sample sizes tend to be small, (70 or less); our experimental curriculum reform practices are not “spectacularly better than our current practices” and narrative reviews are “prone to “subjective selection biases” of the reviewer”, (Asher, (2003 p.7).

A concern for educators is that without careful planning for “cognitive stretch” pedagogies of power sharing through “inquiry” can all too easily create inert content knowledge, much like the pedagogies of “doing a project” in the 1960’s. We have seen many examples of pedagogies for inquiry that too easily betray the special learning needs of gifted and talented students. Scardamalia and Bereiter allude to this more eloquently as

The use of inquiry methods in schools has been based on a frequently disappointed confidence in the power of children’s natural curiosity. Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1994).

The significance of thoughtful planning for cognitive stretch when designing “inquiry based” learning experiences is exemplified in a recent study on the educational effectiveness of problem oriented learning. Gentner, Loewenstein, and Thompson, (2003), showed that when studying a problem in isolation, tertiary students continued to compartmentalise and create inert knowledge. Students may as well have learned the new concepts in a didactic way in terms of any difference problem oriented learning made to student learning outcomes. It was only when the problem oriented learning activity required students to compare and contrast quite different cases, to look for similarities and differences across dissimilar and apparently unrelated problems that students showed transfer of knowledge and dramatic learning gains resulting from the activity. Unless teachers understand how to introduce pedagogies of cognitive stretch into student inquiry learning, student learning outcomes from inquiry will frequently disappoint.

Identifying and planning for cognitive stretch

The Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes (The SOLO Taxonomy), (Biggs and Collis 1982) provides criteria for assessing the cognitive complexity of students understanding when mastering new learning. SOLO is content independent and thus is useful as a generic measure of understanding across different disciplines. Teachers using SOLO criteria can validly, and reliably, identify ascending cognitive complexity in individual and collective student learning outcomes. For example the assTLE assessment tool for teaching and learning used in New Zealand schools is based upon SOLO taxonomy. We use SOLO with teachers in both secondary and primary schools to identify the cognitive stretch of student’s understanding and from this determine their future academic learning needs. We believe that SOLO can play a pivotal role in teacher and student design of academically differentiated learning environments.
SOLO describes five levels of student understanding when encountering new learning. At the prestructural level of understanding, the task is inappropriately attacked; and the student has missed the point. At the unistructural level, one aspect of the task is picked up, and student understanding is disconnected and limited. At the multistructural level, several aspects of the task are known but their relationship to each other, and the whole is missed. At the relational level, the aspects are integrated, and contribute to a coherent understanding of the whole. At the extended abstract level, the new understanding at the relational level is re-thought at another level, and used as the basis for prediction, generalisation, reflection, or creation of new understanding.
SOLO provides a simple systematic way of describing how a learner's performance grows in complexity when mastering any academic task, (Biggs 1999, p37). It can be used by educators and students to define curriculum objectives and learning experiences that describe different levels of cognitive stretch and, for evaluating individual and collective student learning outcomes. So with SOLO it is possible to determine both, the cognitive complexity of individual student understanding and, where to target the differentiation of new learning experiences and interventions, refer Table 2.
Insert Table 2
Teachers and students understand SOLO as a generic representation of the learning process when analogy is drawn between the series of increasingly complex levels of understanding in SOLO taxonomy represented by the visual symbols in Table 2, and the process of making a friend.
SOLO has several advantages over the Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy (Bloom. 1965) the traditional taxonomy for differentiating learning experiences for “cognitive stretch”. One advantage is that SOLO’s development is a theory about teaching and learning rather than a theory about knowledge. A second advantage lies in SOLO’s facility in enabling both student and educator to understand and evaluate learning experiences and learning outcomes in terms of ascending cognitive complexity, (Hattie and Brown (2004). Thus if SOLO is used to design the learning experience and its assessment, then it is possible to design the follow up learning experience at an appropriate level of Vygotskyan cognitive stretch.
Identifying the cognitive complexity of the learning experience, means teachers can scaffold the desired learning outcome with specific thinking interventions. Table 2 shows how students attempting learning experiences designed to develop SOLO relational thinking learning outcomes are supported by thinking interventions that target this level of cognitive complexity. Examples of relational level thinking interventions include;
Mindmaps, Tree Diagram, Concept map, Venn diagrams, Double Bubble maps, Matrix diagram, Force Field Analysis, SWOT analysis, Bridge map, Continuum line, Priorities grid, Ranking order, Time line, Flow chart, Cycle, Story board, GANTT chart, De Bono’s yellow and black hats, and CoRT thinking Plus, Minus and Interesting. Compare contrast map, Classify map, Part-whole map, Sequence map, Cause effect map, Analogy map.

Identifying, and planning for, the integration of ICT.

MacMillan’s “meddler in the middle” metaphor (MacMillan, 2005) will resonate with educators looking at how “learning through ICT” might enhance learning outcomes for gifted and talented students. When learning is portrayed as “knowledge building”, or as a form of “collaborative authorship”, (Manovich, 2001), it immediately suggests a role for integrating ICT. ICT has a unique facility for enhancing the multiplicity of variation and information surfaces available for meddling. ICT proficient students are already meddling with examples of collaborative authorship in sampling, remixing as in the music/video industry and in open source software. This is especially obvious in the computer game industries support for creating mods/avatars/and patches. For example, The Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion RPG supports a free download of The Elder Scrolls Construction Set and access to the Elder Scrolls Construction Set Wiki. This allows
… extensive expansion of the game and includes all of the basic world building tools used by the designers, giving users many of the same opportunities to create original game content as the designers. The Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion
Significantly, in this collaborative authorship “meddler” metaphor for learning process, the rhizomal learning networks established with co-creation are non-linear and can bypass or exclude learning nodes which prove to be ineffective, can bypass the teacher who does not add value, altogether, (McWilliam 2005). Learning how to deal with an “ineffective node” is essential understanding for gifted and talented students.
Using ICT to bypass an ineffective node is a strategy that technology savvy students will readily affirm. These students already use ICT for personal learning, in ways reminiscent of the “co-creating meddler” and “the database”. They use a range of social networking Web 2.0 communication software to collaborate over the network to acquire, to record, to manipulate, to store, to create, and to distribute “information surfaces”. Parents will confirm that many New Zealand students are already interacting in complex communal learning networks and seem able to communicate synchronously and asynchronously through peer-to-peer internet telephone networks like Skype, SMS text, instant messaging like msn, email, telephone, MyPlace, and f2f with great facility.

Bringing the design components together

 Every school we have worked with has had its own approach to power sharing, cognitive stretch, and the integration of ICT. To accommodate the multiplicity of approaches, we developed a generic pedagogical “understanding by design” framework to structure differentiated inquiry based learning experiences that integrate ICT. The design framework is aligned to SOLO Taxonomy (Biggs & Collis 1982) and strengthens design for inquiry across Herron’s four levels, (Herron 1971), refer Appendix 1.

Teachers and students can use the same design template to detail the learning experiences and questions planned for inquiry. Teachers often use Herron’s Level 0 Inquiry (confirmation/verification), (Herron 1971), to plan immersion activities for students before they are challenged to develop their own questions for Level 3 student driven open inquiry. Gifted and talented students may be able to plan their inquiry independently without an initial teacher led Level 0 inquiry.//
This pedagogical framework has been used in both primary and secondary inclusive classrooms and allows planning, for differentiated learning experiences differentiated for ascending cognitive complexity through SOLO taxonomy, (Biggs & Collis 1982). It allows for the targeting of thinking skills, strategies and dispositions that will support the differentiated learning experiences and learning outcomes, and scaffolds for the integration of ICT. Significantly this framework is designed to be understood by and, used by, gifted and talented students who can begin to take responsibility for negotiating differentiating approaches for their own learning.

The teaching and learning experiences that will help students gain the knowledge and skills needed for understanding are identified and coded for cognitive complexity against Fogarty’s input, process and output (Fogarty 2002) aligned to the SOLO Taxonomy, (Biggs and Collis 1982). For example teachers and or students are asked to design learning experiences in response to the following questions;//

The integration of ICT in the input, process and output learning experiences of inquiry is foreshadowed on the design framework by triggers for;//

These ICT lists are descriptive rather than prescriptive and are intended to be starting points for shameless adaptation by teachers thinking about how the ICT environments of their school might enhance the conditions for teaching and learning in inquiry.//

Regardless of the level of inquiry planned for, the design framework asks educators, and or students, to describe the performance for understanding that will form the assessment for student’s new learning. This performance is then coded against SOLO taxonomy. Coding assessment against SOLO taxonomy ensures that the qualitative understanding of students is recognised across all levels of ascending cognitive complexity. Coding also allows teachers to identify thinking interventions that target individual student learning needs; and students to understand where they are in the learning process, and the interventions that will help them gain a deeper understanding.//

Thus the pedagogical design framework enables both teachers and students to plan for;//

· Differing levels of “power sharing” through Herron’s four levels of inquiry -the confirmation/verification through to open levels of inquiry options (Herron 1971),//
· Differing levels of cognitive stretch in the learning process, through SOLO Taxonomies, unistructural, multistructural, relational and extended abstract coded student learning experiences.
· Differing thinking interventions targeting specific student learning outcomes.
· Differing ways in which the integration of ICT might enhance conditions for teaching and learning, through examples of ICT for enhancing information gathering; processing; and creating, evaluating, communicating and reflecting.

Conclusions and Future Work

Until teachers are clear about their understanding of cognitive stretch there will always be misunderstandings around the design and structure of content differentiated learning experiences.

A future challenge would be to develop this pedagogical “understanding by design” framework into a formal educational process model encoded in XML. This would allow online access to a responsive pedagogical design model which could be edited by teachers and students to fully describe the teaching learning process. Such a design model would be flexible enough to meet personal and situational learning needs of all students in inclusive classrooms. The use of such a reusable pedagogical design framework by teachers and students would be an important step in addressing the pedagogical rationale for differentiation in inclusive settings.

Use of the pedagogical design framework could bring a much needed clarity to any future research into the capability of inquiry and ICT to enhance learning outcomes for gifted and talented students. It may well help us plan future research to answer a telling question for gifted and talented students;

Do students who experience SOLO Taxonomy differentiated inquiry based learning environments have an understanding that is deeper, more integrated, more coherent and at a higher level of abstraction than students who learn in undifferentiated inquiry based learning environments?


Biggs J & Collis K (1982). Evaluating the Quality of Learning: the SOLO taxonomyNew York: Academic Press
Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Buckingham Open University Press, Buckingham.
Bloom, B.S. (1965). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Longman, London.
Fraser, D. (2000). Curriculum integration: What it is and is not. Set: Research Information for Teachers, 3, 34-37.
Gentner, D. Loewenstein, J., and Thompson, L. (2003). Learning and transfer: A general role for analogical encoding. Journal of Educational Psychology,vol. 95, pp.393 – 408
Hattie, J.A.C., & Brown, G.T.L. (2004, September). Cognitive processes in asTTle: The SOLO taxonomy. asTTle Technical Report #43, University of Auckland/Ministry of Education.
Herron, M.D. (1971). The nature of scientific enquiry. School Review, 79(2), 171- 212.

Manovich, L. (2001). The language of new media. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
McWilliam, E. (2005). Unlearning Pedagogy. Journal of Learning Design, Vol. 1; No.1.
Ministry of Education (2003). ICT strategy document - Digital Horizons. Learning through ICT. A strategy for school, 2002-2004. Revised Edition. Wellington: Learning Media.
Riley, T. (2000). TKI Planning for differentiation. URL retrieved May 2004 from []
Riley, T., J. Bevan-Brown, B. Bicknell, J. Carrol-Lind, & A. Kearney. (2004). The Extent, Nature and Effectiveness of Planned Approaches in New Zealand School for Providing for Gifted and Talented Students. Report to the Ministry of Education, New Zealand.
Roberts, J.L., & Roberts, R.A. (2001). Writing units that remove the learning ceiling. In F.A.Karnes & S.M. Bean (Eds), Methods and materials for teaching the gifted(pp. 213-252). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1994). Computer support for knowledge-building communities. The Journal of the Learning Sciences,3(3), 265-283.
Taylor, S. (2001). Gifted and talented children. A planning guide//. Christchurch: User Friendly Resources, Ltd.

Reference tables to be inserted

[1] The author acknowledges an intellectual debt to the educational bloggers who have left comment and questions on the Artichoke blog ( over the past year.
[2] Accessed at

HOT symbol (150 x 79).jpg

Copyright © Hooked on Thinking. Pam Hook and Julie Mills, 2004 to 2011. All rights reserved.

Unless clearly stated otherwise, copyright material contained on this site is the intellectual property of Hooked on Thinking, Pam Hook and Julie Mills.

You may not use this work for commercial purposes. You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work without the written permission of the rights owner.

Personal tools