Adaptive teaching

This article was written for SecEd Magazine

The PISA research says that ‘adaptive instruction’ is one of the approaches most positively correlated with student performance. Matt Bromley looks at what adaptive teaching entails and how to deliver it

One of my former students – I’ll call him John – contacted me recently. He wanted to update me on what he’d been doing since I last taught him nearly a decade ago.

I’ve acquired a group of students like John who get in touch from time to time to tell me how they’re getting on. It is one of the greatest privileges afforded to a teacher: to see, first-hand, the impact you have on young people’s lives and how your actions continue to shape those lives long after they leave school.

John was in a class I regularly cite on training courses. If you have heard me talk about teaching English to “bottom set boys on a Friday afternoon”, then know that John was one of those boys.

All the boys in that class (it was a co-educational comprehensive school, it just so happened that all the students with the lowest target grades were, as is often the case in English, boys) were predicted Es and Fs. They were what I would euphemistically call “a lively bunch”.

And yet, spoiler alert, they all came out with Cs and above. As a result, many went on to study A levels in the school sixth form and then onto university, despite having been previously written off by the system.

The secret to helping those boys secure their gateway qualifications was, I think in retrospect, adaptive teaching.

Of course, I didn’t call it such at the time – to me it was simply “teaching”. But my approach was akin to an approach that is now given that moniker.

So, what is adaptive teaching?

According to Standard 5 of the Teachers’ Standards (DfE, 2011) adaptive teaching is when teachers “adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils”. Specifically, adaptive teaching requires teachers to:

  • Know when and how to differentiate appropriately, using approaches which enable pupils to be taught effectively.
  • Have a secure understanding of how a range of factors can inhibit pupils’ ability to learn and how best to overcome these.
  • Demonstrate an awareness of the physical, social and intellectual development of children and know how to adapt teaching to support pupils’ education at different stages of development.
  • Have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils – including those with SEND, those of high ability, those with English as an additional language – and be able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them.

Adaptive teaching also forms part of the new Early Career Framework (DfE, 2019). Section 5 says that new teachers should learn that:

  • Pupils are likely to learn at different rates and to require different levels and types of support from teachers to succeed.
  • Seeking to understand pupils’ differences, including their different levels of prior knowledge and potential barriers to learning, is an essential part of teaching.
  • Adapting teaching in a responsive way, including by providing targeted support to pupils who are struggling, is likely to increase pupil success.
  • Adaptive teaching is less likely to be valuable if it causes the teacher to artificially create distinct tasks for different groups of pupils or to set lower expectations for particular pupils.
  • Flexibly grouping pupils within a class to provide more tailored support can be effective, but care should be taken to monitor the impact on engagement and motivation, particularly for low attaining pupils.
  • There is a common misconception that pupils have distinct and identifiable learning styles. This is not supported by evidence and attempting to tailor lessons to learning styles is unlikely to be beneficial.
  • Pupils with SEND are likely to require additional or adapted support, working closely with colleagues, families and pupils to understand barriers and identify effective strategies is essential.

According to the ECF, new teachers also need to learn how to:

  • Develop an understanding of different pupil needs, including by identifying pupils who need new content further broken down, using formative assessment and working closely with the SENCO and others.
  • Provide opportunity for all pupils to experience success, including by maintaining high expectations for all and making effective use of teaching assistants.
  • Meet individual needs without creating unnecessary workload, including by 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 whether intervening within lessons with individuals and small groups would be more efficient and effective 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.

Focusing on the whole class

In short then, whereas traditional differentiation focuses on individual students or small groups of students, adaptive teaching focuses on the whole class.

It is, in effect, the difference between teaching up to 30 different lessons at once, matching the pace and pitch to each individual student and providing different tasks and resources to different students, and teaching the same lesson to all 30 students, and doing so by “teaching to the top” while providing scaffolds to those who need additional initial support in order to access the same ambitious curriculum and meet our high expectations.

Crucially, additional support offered in the guise of scaffolding should be reduced over time so that all students can become increasingly independent.

The problem with the former approach – teaching up to 30 different lessons – is that, as well as it being hugely time-consuming for the teacher, it can translate in practice as expecting less of some students than we do of others – in other words, as dumbing down or reducing the curriculum on offer.

There is another problem with differentiated teaching, too: ED Hirsch in his book Why Knowledge Matters (2016) says: “When a teacher is attending to the individual needs of one student in a class of 20, 19 are not receiving the teacher’s attention.”

Unlike traditional forms of differentiation which can perpetuate attainment gaps by capping opportunities and aspirations, adaptive teaching promotes high achievement for all. In fact, according to the 2015 PISA results, “adaptive instruction” is one of the approaches most positively correlated with student performance. In fact, it is second only to ensuring students are from wealthy backgrounds!

Put simply, if we dumb down or reduce the curriculum for some students, we only serve to double their existing disadvantages, rather than help them overcome those challenges to achieve in line with their peers.

So, what does it look like in practice?

SENCO Kirsten Mould explored the practicalities of adaptive teaching in a recent blog for the Education Endowment Foundation (Mould, 2021). She says that “high-quality teaching – adjusting, adapting and assessing in the classroom – is of course crucial for the progress of all pupils” and goes on to say that “while providing focused support to children who are not making progress is recommended, creating a multitude of differentiated resources is not”.

Having a full understanding of every child is extremely important in adaptive teaching, Mould explains. The blog argues that adaptive teaching is synonymous with the kinds of “quality, impactful teaching strategies” (that are expounded) in the EEF’s guidance for SEN in mainstream schools (EEF, 2020).

Mould adds: “At first glance, these strategies may seem commonplace. However, effective implementation, developing a shared understanding of what they look like in practice across a school, is a challenge.”

Chief among these strategies, then, is scaffolding…

In her blog, Mould continues: “Scaffolding aims to provide students with temporary supports that are gradually removed or ‘faded out’ as they become increasingly independent. It is a common component of guided practice within instruction. Teachers are used to the idea of first, now, next – building the bigger picture and making connections for learning.”

While scaffolding, it is important to “monitor task, effort required, and (the) independent working time given as these can impact pupil effort, attention and persistence in the classroom”.

High-quality teaching is also crucial to the progress of pupils with SEND and the four-part cycle of “assess, plan, do, review” – what the SEND Code of Practice refers to as “the graduated response” – is the first step in identifying barriers and developing strategies to support all pupils, including those with SEND.

In her blog, Mould argues that “adaptive teaching strategies sit firmly at the heart of (this cycle): adapting planning prior to the lesson and adjusting practice during the lesson”.

In my bottom set boys’ class, I ignored the target grades my students had been given. And I told my students to ignore them too. To convince them, I explained how the targets had been calculated and tore apart the logic. There was, I said, nothing to prevent them from achieving the very top grades if they worked hard enough. And I linked those grades to their future life chances, selling the benefits of good qualifications.

Then I set the bar high. I used GCSE grade descriptors to determine the standard of work I expected from my students – explaining the difference between, say, a grade 5 and a grade 8 piece of work in tangible terms. The language of the grade descriptors became the starting point for all my teacher explanations and modelling.

I made sure I modelled the very best work but, in so doing, I deconstructed examples of excellence “live” in front of students so they could see how to get from where they were to where they needed to be, rather than presenting them with “here’s one I made earlier”.

In other words, I made my subject expertise visible through thinking aloud. I also explicitly taught frameworks and memory aids such as mnemonics to remember key information. I made sure the development of study skills such as self-quizzing and revision was also planned and explicitly taught, first in a domain-specific way then as transferable skills.

Next, I made sure all my feedback was specific and challenging and that every time feedback was given, students were afforded lesson time to process it, question it, and act upon it. Their progress, however incremental, was then celebrated and made visible. My comments never compared a student with others in the class, but rather they compared each student with their earlier selves: my feedback made clear where they were now, how far they had come, and what their next steps should be.

Most importantly perhaps, I made sure that every student in the class completed the same task – I did not differentiate tasks according to “ability” nor did I produce differentiated resources. I did not differentiate the questions I asked either – I made sure every student was required to answer questions that demanded critical thinking. Every student worked towards the same goal – and crucially that goal was the same as I’d set for my top set class.

Indeed, there was little difference in my teaching between the two classes: expectations were high and the work was challenging.

But in setting the same ambitious goals for all students, I also provided differing levels of support depending on my students’ starting points and additional and different needs. For example, though they all answered the same essay question and were assessed against the same criteria, I provided additional cues to some students to help them get started or I gave some students stem sentences to kickstart their thinking. All these scaffolds fell away over time though – independence was always the aim.

A further strategy I deployed was to better understand my students’ lived experiences, which is to say that I got to know my students so I could ensure I built new abstract knowledge upon their existing concrete knowledge.

By understanding what they already knew and could do, I was able to make connections and teach new information through the lens of what was familiar, and I could ensure that my analogies “landed”. By understanding prior learning, I was also able to identify the gaps that existed in my students’ existing knowledge as well as any misconceptions and misunderstandings they brought to the classroom which could then be unpacked.


So, what happened to John after he left school with his C in English? He messaged me recently to tell me that he’s just embarked on his PhD having successfully completed his Master’s and, before that, he’d graduated with first class honours.

Perhaps self-indulgently, I’ll leave the last word to John who wrote: “You are the first person I thought I should tell because you were the one who put the effort in with us all at school. I still see most of the boys from that class and you often crop up in conversation. We are all still grateful you stuck with us; you won’t believe how much having that C helped us all – so thank you.”

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