“Sir, I don’t know where to start with this Scrooge essay!”

“Neither do I…”

“How many paragraphs do I need to do again?”

“What does redemption mean?”

Even the best laid lesson plans of expert teachers go awry. Regardless of deftly planned schemes of learning, teaching is not merely imparting knowledge in linear, formulaic fashion. Pupils are learning in different ways, at different rates, and, alas, many pupils are failing to learn in the ways we hope and expect. 

You can be teaching Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ with great skill and care. You can craft explanations, plan tasks that you think build pupils’ knowledge, offer modelling and support…then you set them off with an independent essay, and it starts to go off-piste. At this point, the expertise and skill of adaptive teaching comes into play. 

What is it anyway?

Adaptive teaching is the subtle, tricky, but compelling stuff of teaching. No lesson package you lift from the Internet can eliminate the necessity for adaptation and responsiveness. 

This recognition that pupils learn differently, and that they have different needs, is one that we take for granted in education. But what we do about it is trickier and more contentious. In recent years, differentiation has fallen out of fashion (I wrote a TES column on the ‘death of differentiation’ HERE) and ‘adaptive teaching’ is now being promoted in its place. 

It is not a new term or concept. In the Teacher Standards, standard number 5 states: “Adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils’. In the more recent ECF, adaptive teaching is promoted as an “opportunity for all pupils to experience success, by adapting lessons, whilst maintaining high expectations for all, so that all pupils have the opportunity to meet expectations.”

Is it just great teaching?

Are these descriptions merely describing great teaching that is responsive to the needs of pupils? It may be so, but there is ample evidence that adapting teaching to the needs of pupils requires significant expertise and proves one of the hardest aspects of teaching practice. It sounds like good common sense, but it probably isn’t so common. 

As attendance issues hit schools, along with a rising tide of pupils with SEN struggling to access support, it may be that the challenge for adaptive teaching is subtly becoming more difficult. 

Adaptive teaching then offers a useful lens to support high quality teaching for all pupils, but also it offers a handy lens to support vulnerable pupils who may more likely struggle with accessing the curriculum, such as tasks like writing tricky Scrooge essays in English.

It can be helpful to further break down the complexities of adaptive teaching to something that is more clearly understood, and therefore better enacted. It can be helpfully characterised in two different types of adaptations:

  • Microadaptations. Sensitive, moment-to-moment adaptations responding to pupils’ learning e.g., deploying flexible grouping in a history lesson to quickly reexplain how they might more effectively plan their essay on Scrooge.
  • Significant adaptations. Pupils with a learning difficulty or disability may require significant adaptations and schools are required to ensure reasonable adjustments are made e.g., offering additional Teaching Assistant support with complex tasks. 

It is the legion of microadaptations that are most commonly deployed by teachers. When we pay attention to how pupils learn differently – along with the necessary adaptations that could support them before a task, during a task, and after – we can ensure lessons are more inclusive by design. Even with the best laid-plans, with adaptive teaching in mind, teachers will still need to improvise and replan. But with adaptive teaching in mind, we are better prepared to respond with the thoughtful, responsive, proactive moves of an expert teacher. 

Related reading:
  • I have written about ‘Adaptive teaching and vocabulary instruction’ HERE.
  • The TES Explains series includes an excellent compilation of articles on ‘adaptive teaching’ HERE.
  • Jon Eaton and Education South West have produced an excellent poster on ‘Understanding Adaptive Teaching’ HERE.

Adaptive Teaching Masterclass

I am undertaking a Teachology Masterclass on ‘Adaptive Teaching Unleashed’ in Birmingham (23rd Feb) and Manchester (31st May) – both live and online. The full-day masterclasses include an exclusive guide: ‘Adaptive Teaching for Teachers and Leaders‘, along with lots of practical takeaways. See HERE FOR MORE.