Tips For Teachers

By Katy Mthethwa

What a ridiculous thought, that in education, one size would fit all.

We know that it is impossible to stretch one ‘product’ to fit the varying needs of the children we teach. Our children come with a variety of educational, social, emotional and personal needs. We have policies on diversity and inclusion to ensure careful consideration of how we will meet those assorted needs.

We must differentiate content to accommodate needs

Differentiation in the classroom is defined as a teacher employing strategies to accommodate the variance among children. We naturally think of making learning accessible to the less able and extending the gifted, but we must also consider differentiating the content to take into account in all children:

  • prior knowledge
  • the process through which the students engage in their learning (i.e. different learning styles)
  • outcomes of projects, where some are extended beyond the initial task.

Creating an engaging, enriching learning experience for each child, each day, in each subject requires a lot of time and effort in planning, but what a reward to know that no child was ‘bored’ because they already knew what was being taught or because they’d finished their task while others were still struggling; to know that no child felt another knock to their self-esteem because they couldn’t achieve the task that others had.

The teacher’s reward is that each child leaves the classroom confident that they have just achieved. They achieved because the task required just enough perseverance and determination to develop their skills, but not so much that they floundered.

This sounds like a heavenly classroom. It is a classroom that I have seen in action – maybe not to perfection, but certainly close to the ideal. Yet, many teachers, even when they desire such a classroom and love the philosophy, sigh at the impossibility due to one element: assessment.

The right approach to assessment?

So I question our assessment structures. Why do we give a percentage mark? Why do we grade children against each other, requiring parity in tests, equal tasks, or some amazingly ‘objective’ way to weight the marks differently for tasks which are less demanding?

This style of assessment requires our lower-ability students to move on before they are ready. They are still grasping basic operations in maths when we move on to decimals with the rest of the grade. We often move children on prematurely, then find they don’t have the solid foundations they need to build on, that there are ‘gaps’ (which we’ve caused) in their learning and now require remedial support. The most tragic part of all… their confidence is knocked, their sense of self-esteem is affected, they don’t see what they can do, they see what they can’t do. Our more able children begin to think they can do everything. If we’re always stretching them, enabling them to work a year or two above their level, when do they ever learn the skills of perseverance? When do they learn through failure if they always succeed? Pupils become so mark-focused rather than effort-focused, that they don’t acquire the skills and dispositions required for the 21st century.

Look at attainment levels again

Why can’t we look at a radically new assessment structure – one which is based on attainment levels for where children should be at their age? Each child then works towards the next attainment level, working according to their own current level, rather than that of others in the grade. The majority of our class would still be in the same band, but the others will be well planned for, having appropriate attainment goals. These systems work well in other countries around the world. Could their ‘one size’ fit ours?


1. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2011) ‘Fifty Years of Change in Education.’ (2011). Available at:

2. Tomlinson, C.A. (2000) ‘Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades’. Available at :

Category: Winter 2013

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