3.5.1 Differentiation and Stretch and Challenge

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

  • To understand and be able to explain clearly what 'differentiation' means
  • To identify different methods of offering differentiation in the classroom
  • To evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of differentiation for teachers
  • To understand and be able to explain clearly what 'stretch and challenge' means, and how it differs from 'differentiation'
  • To critically evaluate the need to offer 'stretch and challenge' to abler learners

What is differentiation?

Differentiation refers to the processes by which the full spectrum of learners' abilities is engaged with and supported, challenged, and maximised in the classroom. The term acknowledges a shift away from a view of education as being fundamentally teacher-centred - where the didactic educator transmits outwards to the class, and every learner treated as though they were equal in respect of their abilities and interests - towards one which is learner-centric, and where different pupils' educational experiences are curated, so that though there is commonality in the class in terms of what is studied, there is both acknowledgement and appropriate support for the ability range across the cohort. This may mean, for example, a selection of activities and tasks being incorporated into a single lesson to best engage learners at differing ability levels.

Tomlinson (2004) sees six factors as relevant for teachers to be properly responsive to the needs of all their learners:

1. The teacher should focus on clarity when explaining the essentials of the topic under consideration in the session; this is beneficial because the basics are covered clearly so that less able learners can engage, but the brevity of the input means that abler learners are not disengaged by protracted explanations of concepts they have grasped straightforwardly.

2. The teacher should be attuned to student difference in the differentiated classroom. This is not only in the more formal aspects of task completion and assessment, but in tone of voice, mode of address, and use of questioning, for example.

3. Assessment and instruction should be linked together; assessing learners, be that in end-of-session summative work, or in informal questioning and answering, is an ongoing diagnostic tool, and the teacher is thus better informed to modify the ways in which teaching is differentiated, because of such interactions.

4. The teacher should be prepared to modify the lesson in terms of its content (the topic of the session, and the support materials being used to communicate and embed the fresh learning), its processes (the learning strategies employed by learners in engaging with the session and its objectives), and its products (the outcomes, and the tasks and activities employed to evidence those outcomes in learners).

5. A flexible approach by the teacher in respect of content, process and product is articulated with adaptability towards the learners. Tomlinson (2004) sees three aspects of the learner as being of relevance here: first of these is their readiness to engage with a given topic or concept; second, their general level of interest in the wider subject area; and third, their learning profile, which incorporates ideas such as student learning styles.

6. Finally, it is key that learning is conducted in a mutually-respectful and collaborative environment. Where an array of abilities, learning profiles, and engagement levels can be respected, the session can be conducted in such a way that allows for the maximum participation and achievement for all.

Why do we differentiate?

Forms of differentiation have been in existence for as long as there have been schools large enough to require more than one class. Typically, learners have been separated on the understanding that there is a general level of comparability which relates to age and ability terms. Particularly in secondary education, streamed ability classes - sometimes called 'sets' - have long been used to group together learners of approximately equal abilities. In such relatively crude ways, there can be differentiated educational experiences through separating larger bodies of learners into smaller teaching groups, and then teaching more tailored content to those groups.

For Petty (2009), differentiation reflects developments in pedagogic thinking and its prevalence shows how far education has moved on; that is, the shift from a teacher-centred to a learner-centred focus to the contemporary classroom. We teach not so that we can express our own expertise, but to foster meaningful engagement in others with that taught subject.

Petty (2009) suggests that differentiation may be considered in respect of the kind of task being offered, the outcomes being sought, and by the amount of time allowed to the learner for successful task completion: "[i]t is what the learner does, not what the teacher does, that creates learning, so the task is key. Remember that some learners need more time than others" (p. 587). Task-based differentiation may be the most straightforward form of providing alternate, graduated learning experiences, but it is not the only method which may be used.

Differentiation does not necessarily mean providing alternatives, though. Careful consideration in advance of tasks and outcomes can lead to the devising of activities which accommodate a breadth of different learning styles and approaches to study (Petty, 2009). A broad brief, which is open to interpretation, for example, may suit a diversity of responses at different levels. Similarly, group tasks and exercises where peer learning and peer assessment are involved can engage and support differentiation in the classroom. Problem-solving exercises, and activities demanding creativity in their completion, will generate student-led differentiation through the varied responses to the task.

Differentiation may occur, then, in respect of: task; grouping; resources used; pace of learning or of task completion; having varied outcomes; moderating dialogue and support with learners; assessment methods and targets (BBC Active, 2010). Methods can be combined and varied to suit the needs of learners in the class, particularly regarding their learning needs, abilities, and preferred styles. 

What are the benefits and limitations of differentiation?

There are both clear advantages and potential drawbacks in providing a fully-differentiated classroom experience for learners. This section indicates several benefits and issues associated with differentiation.

Advantages (Lombardo, 2016):

  • Differentiation offers each learner the opportunity to excel to the best of their ability.
  • Differentiation promotes equality and diversity, as all learners are given individual consideration rather than focusing such attention on those whose circumstances might demand it (such as learners with SEND).
  • A differentiated approach focuses attention on the learners and on their needs, rather than on the subject or on the teacher. This makes teaching fresh, and a new and meaningful challenge is provided with presentation of each topic.
  • Differentiated strategies privilege flexibility and creativity in the teacher; teaching and communicative expertise is both showcased and scrutinised on a continual basis.

Disadvantages (Layton, 2016):

  • There may be workload issues for the teacher in the planning and preparation of fully-differentiated classes, and associated administrative burdens in recording learner progress.
  • Differentiation relies on learner buy-in. Reluctant learners, obstructive students, or those who may not be able to grasp a concept may still take up teacher time and skew the session towards them.
  • Judgment on where to draw lines between whole-class progress and differentiated learning may prove awkward to manage at the scheme of work level, necessitating frequent re-planning.
  • It may be difficult to assess the success of a fully differentiated strategy against the abilities of learners in and of themselves.
  • Time constraints in-class may limit the scope of possible differentiation strategies which can be realistically deployed.

The advantages of differentiation outweigh the limitations, but teachers should be aware of the practicalities of articulating the needs of the individual learner against the needs of the class. Strategic planning to maximise opportunities ahead of time should be combined with the seizing of live chances in the teaching moment to best support the diverse needs of learners.

What is 'stretch and challenge'?

We can think of the term 'stretch and challenge' as encompassing two separate, though related, aspects of classroom practice, both of which have connections to differentiation. In the first instance, 'stretch and challenge' may be conceptualised as referring to the provision of a whole-class experience that underscores the relevance of providing stimulating tasks and activities that push all learners to the limits of their current knowledge and educational comfort zone. In the second, and perhaps more readily-understood version, the term 'stretch and challenge' refers to supporting the most able learners in any group, and the provision of an educational experience that allows them to achieve at the outer limits of their ability, perhaps beyond the aims and objectives of the lesson plan.

For the teacher, the question of stretch and challenge requires consideration in two ways: first, that all learners are stimulated to their maximum, and that there is preparation in advance should additional learning opportunities be relevant for learners who would otherwise comfortably exceed the parameters of the lesson. This section, and the one which follows, focuses on achievement at the higher end of the class ability; however, it is to be recognised that the principles behind 'stretch and challenge' should apply equally to all learners. 

'Stretch and challenge' also acknowledges a difficult truth about teaching: that sometimes, attention may be unequally focused on those learners who require support, offer behavioural and attitudinal challenges, and who may reside at the lower end of the ability range in the class. All learners deserve to have their potential tested and encouraged in positive and supportive ways. 'Stretch and challenge' is the mechanism by which this may be both done and evidenced. At its simplest, then, 'stretch and challenge' means the provision of additional learning materials related to the topic in question which further a learner's investigation of that topic.

Why do we 'stretch and challenge' learners?

A 2013 Ofsted report noted with disappointment that too many able learners were underachieving in that, though they were exceeding national performance averages, they were not being stimulated to activating their full potential as students; shortfalls of this kind were observed at in both primary and secondary educational contexts (Ofsted, 2013). Underachievement of high-attaining learners was also identified at GCSE and at A level in the same report (Ofsted, 2013). Ofsted noted that there were ramifications for this in terms of individual educational achievement, but also with respect to wider considerations, such as the UK's broader ability to be economically and intellectually competitive in global terms (Ofsted, 2013).

The same report summarised good practice, which was commonly observed in the best-performing schools (Ofsted, 2013). Relevant strategies in supporting abler learners included: 

  • Staff having detailed knowledge of their abler learners, and of their relative strengths and personal interests as learners
  • Having rigorous and challenging programmes of formative and summative assessment
  • Using tracking and monitoring strategies to maintain a focus on abler learners, and to intervene supportively if a decline in performance is detected

In practical terms, when considering the level of stretch and challenge to offer learners, the following may be of use. Imagine that there are three possible zones of engagement with a topic: 

  • The comfort zone: characterised by low stress, little or no challenge to the learner, limited need to think, and so limited learning is actually taking place
  • The struggle zone: Work here is not stressful, but it is challenging. The learner is challenged to think, and so is being stretched; effective learning is taking place.
  • The panic zone: The level of challenge here is high, but so is stress, because the activity demands cognitive abilities beyond the current reach of the learners. Limited or no learning is taking place.

The zone to target for your learners is, in this model, the struggle zone (Teacher Toolkit, 2016). If the standard activities and tasks are well within the comfort zone of the learner, then they are not learning. Producing additional or alternative tasks which fall into the struggle zone means that the learner must work to achieve, but the task is not impossible for them.


This chapter has covered the related areas of differentiation and 'stretch and challenge'. Providing an appropriately differentiated learning experience has been shown to be central to contemporary education. However, there are always practicalities to address, and a fully-individualised class is perhaps beyond the bounds of all but the most exclusive of educational establishments. Don't feel concerned that you can't do everything for everyone; think instead about how you can maximise learning opportunities through appropriate levels of differentiation. Think smart, rather than working to extremes.


BBC Active (2010) Methods of differentiation in the classroom. Available at: http://www.bbcactive.com/BBCActiveIdeasandResources/MethodsofDifferentiationintheClassroom.aspx (Accessed: 31 October 2016).

Department for Children, Schools and Families (2007) Effective provision for gifted and talented students in secondary education. Available at: https://www.learntogether.org.uk/Resources/Documents/Effective%20provision%20for%20GT%20students%20in%20secondary%20education.pdf (Accessed: 31 October 2016).

Department for Children, Schools and Families (2009) The classroom quality standards for gifted and talented education: a subject focus. Available at: http://www.ttrb3.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/The-Classroom-Quality-Standards-for-Gifted-and-Talented-education-A-subject-focus-flyer.pdf (Accessed: 31 October 2016).

Layton, S. (2016) The pros and cons of differentiated instruction. Available at: http://www.aeseducation.com/2016/03/pros-and-cons-of-differentiated-instruction/ (Accessed: 31 October 2016).

Lombardo, C. (2016) Pros and cons of differentiated instruction. Available at: http://www.visionlaunch.com/pros-and-cons-of-differentiated-instruction/ (Accessed: 31 October 2016).

Ofsted (2013) The most able students. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/405518/The_most_able_students.pdf (Accessed: 31 October 2016).

Petty, G. (2009) Teaching today: a practical guide. 4th edn. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes.

Teacher Toolkit (2016) 'Lesson planning: the big picture versus the small details', Teacher Toolkit, Available at: http://www.teachertoolkit.me/2016/03/03/lesson-planning-cpd/ (Accessed: 31 October 2016).

Teachervision (2016) Bloom's Taxonomy: An overview. Available at: https://www.teachervision.com/teaching-methods/curriculum-planning/2171.html (Accessed: 31 October 2016).

Thomas Tallis School (2015) Stretch and challenge policy 2015 -16. Available at: http://www.thomastallisschool.com/uploads/2/2/8/7/2287089/final_stretch___challenge_policy_2015-16.pdf (Accessed: 31 October 2016).

Tomlinson, C.A. (2004) The differentiated classroom: responding to the needs of all learners. London: Pearson.

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