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Adaptive Teaching: are we doing it right?

Updated: Jan 10

As differentiation becomes ‘an increasingly unpopular term in teaching’[1], adaptive teaching has taken the spotlight. But why the change? And what does this mean for teachers, students and classrooms?


What is adaptive teaching?

Outlined in the Early Career Framework as the requirement to develop an understanding of different student needs, provide opportunities for all students to experience success, meet individual needs without creating unnecessary workload and group pupils effectively[2], it’s clear that adaptive teaching is certainly not ‘extra’.


Adaptive teaching, then, has much more in common with individualisation: providing for students at a ‘micro level’[3]. More literally, it means teaching is adapted to provide all learners with the opportunity to access education and meet their potential (and expectations). This also means that adaptive teaching can look very different across educational settings, within specialisms and across classrooms.


Isn’t this just differentiation?

No. Differentiation, though implemented with best intentions, was too often perceived to be a lowering of expectations (with lower achieving students being given ‘easier’ work, therefore perpetuating a cycle of lower achievement). Too often, this meant students were split in to overly rigid ‘ability groups’, at times missing the obvious nuance required to tailor to student needs. Differentiation clearly shares similarities with individualisation and adaptive teaching, but the term has been overly used and poorly applied for too long.


Understand student (and setting) needs

Too often also, differentiation was set over the long-term, failing to take into account student progress or changes in understanding of content and application of skills. For adaptive teaching to be applied, accurate assessment and communication (with all stakeholders) is vital. Adaptive teaching is seen as more flexible than differentiation, and changes day by day and lesson by lesson depending upon student progression (whereas differentiation was perceived as more rigid).


Key to this is understanding what adaptive teaching means in individual settings, with individual cohorts in individual classrooms. It varies in science classrooms as it does in English classrooms, engineering workshops or beauty salons.


Understanding ever-changing student needs has become much more a priority since Covid and more of a priority than preparing lesson resources for specific, pre-defined groups. Resources are still important; however, teacher flexibility, skill and adaptability are more of a priority. High-quality questions are more important than ever; high-quality assessment is (arguably) the priority.


Reframing the language

Part of this also means reframing the language we use. Differentiation is not the same as adaptive teaching, which is not necessarily the same as individualisation (though they are used interchangeably by some). Having been fortunate enough to attend a CPD session led by the excellent Sarah Le-Good  through the quite fantastic Centre for Excellence in SEND project, reframing the language was front and centre. I opened discussions by discussing ‘additional needs’, and the response (paraphrased here with permission from Sarah) has been something that has stayed with me ever since: ‘why is it an additional need? If a student requires a resource to access the curriculum, it’s just a need’.


If it is a need, it is not an additional need. A wheelchair is not an ‘additional need’: it is a need. A teacher wearing a microphone for a student with a hearing impairment is not satisfying an ‘additional’ need, merely a need. And this is at the heart of adaptive teaching – adapting teaching is for supporting all of the needs of all of our students.


This message is not just at the heart of effective adaptive teaching, but effective teaching itself.

As 2024 commences, we're also thrilled to announce The Development Wheel's first English and maths conference. Taking place on Friday 15th March at The Queen's Hotel in Leeds, with a keynote from Baroness Floella Benjamin, sessions are keenly focused around subject specific innovation in both English and maths, as well as AI, assessment, leadership and more. For more information, including how to secure your ticket, follow the link here.

For more resources to support effective teaching, individualisation and adaptive teaching, check out the resource page on our website, here. With a range of resources to support Post-16 maths and English teachers and leaders, we’re working with colleges in the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside on our fully funded, DfE project. To be a part of the great work we’re doing, find out more here.


[2] Daly, C., Gandolfi, H., Pillinger, C., Glegg, P., Hardman, M.A., Stiasny, B. and Taylor, B., 2021. The early career framework–a guide for mentors and early career teachers

[3] Lindner, K.T. and Schwab, S., 2020. Differentiation and individualisation in inclusive education: a systematic review and narrative synthesis. International Journal of Inclusive Education, pp.1-21

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