What is adaptive teaching and why is it so important?
The challenge of enabling all of our learners to progress has given rise to many pedagogical theories, including individualised instruction, differentiation, and adaptive teaching. In this blog, Dr Katy Bloom, Associate Professor of Initial Teacher Education at York St John University, explains what adaptive teaching is, why it is beneficial, and gives examples of what it looks like in practice.
Adaptive teaching versus differentiation
Differentiation is a term that comes with a bit of baggage for many teachers, with its evocation of providing multiple tasks and resources within the same class under a performative system that requires the box to be ticked. The old ‘all must, most should, some could’ approach created a legacy of lowered expectations, especially of the ‘bottom group’ in a class or even year. We taught to the middle, and differentiated ‘up’ and ‘down’, often creating three-level pathways and resources. We used the mantra of differentiation by task, support and outcome, this last coming under heavy fire from the brilliant Phil Beadle in his book ‘How to Teach’: “If you think about it, differentiation by outcome is actually a definition of low expectations. They’ll all do the same piece of work, and some will do it well, some will do it moderately well and some will do it badly, and that’s fine” (p.194).
Standard 5 of the ‘Teachers’ standards’ requires that teachers “adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils”. This is further described in the ’ITT core content framework’ (for Initial Teacher Training) and the ’Early career framework’ (ECT), which unpack it with evidence-informed statements and crucially, marry it with standard 1 to “set high expectations which inspire, motivate and challenge pupils”. Equally, Ofsted give examples of the difference between differentiation and adaptive teaching in their ‘Education inspection framework: overview of research’, describing the latter as being “responsive”.
So, the benefits of adaptive teaching are integral within its principles, taking these from the ECT examples (p.17) to:
- provide opportunity for all pupils to experience success, including by maintaining high expectations for all, balancing input of new content so that pupils master important concepts, and making effective use of teaching assistants
- meet individual needs without creating unnecessary workload, including making use of well-designed (existing) resources; planning to connect new content with pupils’ existing knowledge or providing additional pre-teaching; building in additional practice; reframing questions to provide greater scaffolding; and considering carefully how to intervene within lessons with individuals and small groups rather than planning different lessons for different groups of pupils
- group pupils effectively, including by applying high expectations to all groups, changing groups regularly, and ensuring that any groups based on attainment are subject specific
In having high expectations for all learners, ‘teaching to the middle’ becomes ‘teaching to the top’, where challenging and measurable intended learning outcomes are clarified and shared, with scaffolding for those who might require additional or supportive progression steps to access the same ambitious curricula. The adaptations involve effective planning prior to the lesson, as well as the continual adjustments made to learning and teaching throughout the lesson. Good adaptive teaching is thus rooted in, and reliant upon, good formative assessment so that the instructional decisions that are made are better, or better founded, than decisions made in the absence of it (Wiliam, 2017).
Adaptive teaching is therefore an inherently more inclusive approach, recognising differing learning needs as well as moving away from ableist language of ability. Our language tells our pupils what we value, so when we talk about ‘low-’ or ‘high-ability’ pupils, we are saying you will be judged, not on your competencies, effort, growth, or skills, but on your intelligence. Using the phrase ‘starting points’ is a much less pejorative term and recognises that not only do we all have different starting points in different topics and subjects, but that progress can be made from those starting points. In effect, adaptive teaching can help us label less, and show expectations for all remain high.
Adaptive teaching methods
So how do we live up to the principles highlighted above? One starting point is to reflect upon current teaching practice. Pre-teaching, we need a clear understanding of what potential barriers our pupils might face to communication so that we are able to address them effectively. During teaching, your formative assessment practices are essential to elicit evidence of learning to make those in-the-moment adjustments where required, such as changing the pitch or the pace, flexing your language and using questions to probe further and provide stretch. There are further ideas in this useful ‘Understanding adaptive teaching’ guide from Education South West.
Teach to the top and scaffold
Scaffolding is a term most associated with Lev Vygotsky in the social sense (other people as scaffolds) as opposed to Jerome Bruner, who introduced scaffolds as instructional design. Both approaches can work together or independently: providing additional cues, such as sentence starters to some pupils to help them engage, or flexibly grouping pupils within a class to provide more tailored support. However, the important point about scaffolds is that they are temporary supports.
Over time, no matter what type of scaffold is used, it should be gradually withdrawn, so that independence is grown and learning is owned by the pupil. A common early error in scaffolding is to design the challenge out of a learning task in the desire to make every pupil ‘succeed’, so be clear about what is a barrier and what is a ‘desirable difficulty’. We don’t not teach about misconceptions in case they are too conceptually challenging, we identify likely misconceptions, plan quality questioning to elicit them and topic-specific pedagogy to remediate them. Guided instruction, ‘I do, we do, you do’ and ‘first, now, next’ approaches are useful both in situations of introducing new content and in demonstrating skills, and are known as examples of the gradual release of responsibility model.
Consider how you adapt the content you teach, or how you give access to it, for example through resources and support, including teaching assistants. Getting the ‘right fit’ is one such way to do this, acknowledging that if the basic assignment itself is far too easy for a learner at a higher starting point, then having a chance to answer a more complex question is not an adequate challenge; they instead need to engage with a more challenging text.
Furthermore, you can adapt the cognitive skill or level of ‘sense-making’ that you are asking of pupils. If a pupil has some abilities to recall, define and describe, then they need to be challenged to do something more transformational with it, such as sequence or comparing and contrasting. Another good way to adapt is through altering whatever it is you are expecting as a ‘product’, with pupils being given the choice to demonstrate a range of skills and greater creativity.
Adaptive teaching top tips
- Pupils learn at different speeds, so may need more or less support to meet deadlines and intended learning outcomes
- Formative assessment is vital in giving you the instructional information you need to adapt
- Ask pupils how they learn best – teachers improve when they listen to their pupils
- Try more ‘think-alouds’ as assessment tools
- Use activities which require pupils to reconceptualise their learning: apply, adapt and reimagine to drive learning deeper
- Talk about how it has been learnt as well as what has been learnt. This puts a focus on process
- Fair isn’t always equal and equal isn’t always fair. Vary instructional techniques for pupils to achieve competency
- Don’t act like the oracle
- Whoever does the editing does the learning – stop doing corrections and use a find them and fix them approach. Give a clue as to the nature of the error, or a dot in the margin
- Teach for subject mastery, not short-term memory
- Use criterion-referenced assessments; compare their performance to the criteria, not to each other
- Don’t talk about ability, talk about starting points. We all have different ones in different areas. Pupils like to see their teachers as learners themselves
- Don’t mistake compliance for mastery
Progression in different ways
The American author Carole-Ann Tomlinson writes about how pupils’ readiness to learn covers many different aspects and this can help us think about different ways to adapt our teaching and recognise the learning:
- From 'Foundational' to 'Transformational'
- From 'Concrete' to 'Abstract'
- From 'Simple' to 'Complex'
- From 'Single facet' to 'Multiple facets'
- From 'Small step' to 'Great leap'
- From 'More structured' to 'More open'
- From 'Less independence' to 'Greater independence'
- From 'Slow' to 'Quick'
Whether taking big leaps or small steps, the goal is for our pupils to progress in their learning, so all steps should be celebrated, however incremental. Think about your climate for learning and adopt an approach in which FAIL stands for ‘first attempt in learning’. Learning from failures should be instructional rather than demotivational. As my own teacher mother used to tell me, “If you learnt from it, then it wasn't a mistake. It was a lesson”.
For practical guidance on implementing adaptive teaching in your setting, please see webinars which we have developed in conjunction with Dr Katy Bloom for primary and secondary schools. Each includes an audit tool help you evaluate your current teaching practice and translate theory into action:
- Fundamentals of Adaptive Teaching: Audit Your Practice and Implement Change | Primary
- Fundamentals of Adaptive Teaching: Audit Your Practice and Implement Change | Secondary
If you’re concerned about keeping up to date with the latest education policy, practice and research, consider a membership with The National College. Not only does it provide access to thousands of school professional development resources for all teachers and staff, but also enables leaders to create training programmes precisely tailored to individual and collective needs, to help ensure compliance and drive up standards.
Beadle, P. (2010) How to teach. Crown House Publishing.
DfE (2019) Early Career Framework - https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/978358/Early-Career_Framework_April_2021.pdf
DfE (2020) Special educational needs and disability code of practice: 0 to 25 years - https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/398815/SEND_Code_of_Practice_January_2015.pdf
Eaton, J. (2022) Moving from ‘differentiation’ to ‘adaptive teaching’. Education Endowment Blog - https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/news/moving-from-differentiation-to-adaptive-teaching
Ofsted (2019) Education inspection framework: Overview of research - https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/963625/Research_for_EIF_framework_updated_references_22_Feb_2021.pdf
Sharples, J., Webster, R. & Blatchford, P. (2018) Making best use of teaching assistants Guidance Report. Education Endowment Foundation.
Wiliam, D. (2017) Embedded Formative Assessment. Solution Tree Press.