Differentiated learning: How to square the circle

For creative writing practitioners working in a primary or secondary school can be an exciting yet daunting process. There is a different expectation when delivering such creative workshops within an academic setting, as each project should have added educational value. And whilst there is no doubt that experienced practitioners plan their workshops to the nth degree, would they have considered the varied needs of all participants? Do they know how to support those students during a structured creative writing class? Differentiated learning could hold the key to squaring a troublesome circle. It is an interesting way of making sure all students have access to learning, whatever their individual needs or circumstances.

But what is differentiated learning, and how can it help support creative writing practitioners in the delivery of their workshops?

Most students take in information in a universal way, but not all of them. This means some students have problems engaging with curriculum. A differentiated learning environment seeks to level the playing field, considering:

  • Cultural differences
  • Language
  • Gender
  • Motivation
  • Ability
  • Personal interests
  • Preferred learning style (kinaesthetic, visual etc.)

Adapting the curriculum in this way makes it possible for students to access different avenues to learning such as:

  • Finding relevant content (using a highlighter to define key words within a text-heavy content)
  • Processing information (creating a mind-map instead of writing a report)
  • Finding links between topics (discussion groups amongst peers from different classes e.g a talking about a typical school day during the Tudor period accesses both history and sociology topics)
  • Making sense of their ideas (designing their own PowerPoint presentation or infographic)

Personalised instruction is difficult to achieve, but differentiated learning can, and does, help teachers identify those students who need support and those who need a challenge. It also sets targets for each student, based upon their individual needs.


These targets are prevalent in many primary and secondary schools and the level of difficulty is indicated by ‘Gold’ ‘Silver’ and ‘Bronze’. It is a system most students are aware of and would be comfortable with.

So how does a creative writer fit into this system?

By having prior knowledge of the level each participant is working towards, creative writing practitioners can make sure their workshops reflect this three-tiered structure. Experienced practitioners (those with an ample stash of resources and plans) are time-rich and able to deliver sessions which provide different students with different pathways to learning in terms of:

  • finding content (name three examples of a villain)
  • processing information (are there any similarities between Iago and Shylock?)
  • finding links between topics (racism was prevalent in Shakespeare’s England: discuss)
  • making sense of ideas (discussing ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ alongside ‘Othello’)

In theory, it is clear to see how creative writing practitioners can deliver differentiated learning in their workshops with prior planning and good communication with the teaching staff. And yet, teachers are knowledge-rich but time-poor and may not be able to provide a detailed profile on each and every workshop participant.

So how can a creative writer dovetail this system?

As a creative writing practitioner, I have been fortunate to shadow highly experienced teaching assistants and have gained insight into how effective they are at helping teachers with planning and preparation. This is more than just setting up equipment and handing out glue-sticks.

Teaching assistants attached to special educational needs (SEN) know their students well. They understand their motivations and distractions. They also know who works well in a group, and those who may be ‘disruptive’ (incidentally, disruptive behaviour may be seen as a negative trait but is actually an indicator of how a student processors information – kinaesthetic – or a trait of a learning difficultly such as Asperger’s or ADHD).

Teaching Assistants also have a strong understanding of individual needs: some autistic children like routine, others do not like working in groups. This information is vitally important when planning individual lessons and longer projects such as a whole-term topic. They are also aware of the different learning styles each SEN student prefers and will adapt the lesson plan and/or worksheet accordingly.


Types of learning and communication styles

Whilst a teacher is talking to the whole group, the teaching assistant is able to focus on those students who may need the task explaining in a way they are able to relate to and then breaking down targets into more ‘bite-sized’ chunks. This means all students are fully-engaged with the task, regardless of ability or need.

An example of this is when asking students to write a few paragraphs on photosynthesis. The TA will not direct this request to a dyslexic student, nor will they ask the teacher for support. Instead they will suggest different avenues of learning, such as a mind map exercise, or by writing the text in bullet-points. This allows the student to have an opportunity to ‘go for Gold’ and achieve something they may have usually floundered with. In essence, the most successful of teaching assistants work in a highly creative way. This is true differentiated learning, and it need not be constrained to a 1:1 scenario.

Creative writing practitioners would do well to have on board the support of teaching assistants when planning workshops and indeed during delivery. By engaging in this partnership, teaching assistants are able to share strategies that have helped in other lessons, provide ideas for adapting resources and knowledge of key students who will need lots of support in order to achieve. That is the key to differentiated learning, and one which will provide you with the tools to deliver inclusive, engaging and educational workshops for your client.


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