A Differentiated Curriculum: Same Same…but Different?

Why tutoring can give students equal opportunities to learn

A differentiated curriculum is a learning program that, ideally, meets the academic needs and interests of every student. This means that all the teaching approaches outlined in the curriculum are flexible, so that the content being taught is digestible and refreshingly challenging for each individual child. In a class of twenty or thirty students, who will undoubtedly possess slightly different needs, interests and skills from each other, an effective differentiated program is a challenge for teachers to implement. Nonetheless, experienced teachers, including educators at the new NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA, formerly BOSTES), know that such an individualised curriculum is necessary if all students are to meet their full potential. Susan Winebrenner, an experienced education consultant of the Education Consulting Services in the US, has put forward a compelling argument for differentiated learning, “Equality means giving everyone equal opportunities to learn, not teaching everyone in exactly the same way.

Differentiated CurriculumNESA agrees, and differentiated programming of lessons is integrated within the current K-10 Syllabus Framework. The ability of proficient teachers to individualise and create greater flexibility in lesson plans is also a clear requirement of the NSW Proficient Teacher Evidence Guide (BOSTES, published June 2014), in which the first standard discussed is a knowledge of students and their diverse learning processes. For example, some students may be visual learners who prefer teacher demonstrations, and some students may be more autonomous when given a written list of instructions.

Unfortunately, efforts towards establishing curriculum differentiation in schools often falls short. Within NESA guidelines, such programming is a guide, rather than a requirement whose success can be evaluated by students and their families. In reality, curriculum differentiation may go little further than a few sentences in a school’s teaching/learning policy handbook, or informal extension programs where gifted students meet once or twice a term to work on self-guided projects. Not all schools offer the supported learning or acceleration programs that many students need. And what about HSC students in Year 11 and 12, whose teachers already have their hands full with weekly marking and feedback, and a strict limit on the length of time they can spend on one learning outcome?

Despite schools’ best intentions, classroom sizes and a lack of support materials can mean some students (whether they require additional learning help, would like to fill a few gaps in their knowledge, or are gifted students needing a challenge in class) simply do not receive an equal opportunity to learn.

So how can tutoring provide the flexible learning opportunities often lacking in many classrooms?

NESA recommends these following methods for differentiating students’ learning programs (Differentiated Programming, NSW Education Standards Authority, NSW Government, 2014):

  • tiered and levelled activities
  • interest centres
  • problem-solving and challenge-based learning opportunities
  • open-ended questioning
  • collaborative and individual learning
  • student choice
  • teacher/student dialogue around learning activities

Tutors, such as those on our team at Nepean Tutoring, are highly experienced in providing individualised, focused learning opportunities. In a tutoring setting, students have the opportunity to learn one-on-one, or in a small group. Programs are tailored to their own specific needs and are free from the distractions and competing requirements of other students in a large classroom. Furthermore, our tutors can fill those gaps in knowledge, support students to learn classroom content at their own pace, and find an approach that allows each student to be challenged and grow from their learning experience, without feeling overwhelmed. This facilitates student/tutor discussion and encourages learners to generate their own ideas and questions about content, an important learning process that leads lead to further investigation – that is, further learning. At all times, our tutors ensure students’ needs and interests are at the centre of learning opportunities.

While classroom learning often assumes that students are the same, the individual nature of tutoring recognises that this is a myth. Difference should be valued, and used as a means to help students grow.

NAPLAN and HSC Changes: Teaching the Skills Students need to Succeed

Read on for more information about how Nepean Tutoring can help your child to achieve a ‘world-class’ HSC credential.

You may have heard the news – for the first time in seventeen years, changes have been made to the NSW school curriculum. These changes require students to achieve a Band 8 or higher in their Year 9 NAPLAN results, to be eligible for attaining their Higher School Certificate (HSC) upon completing their Year 12 studies.

NAPLAN“The state’s 70,000 HSC students will have to achieve a pass mark in numeracy and literacy to be awarded the world class credential under the biggest overhaul of the end-of-school exam in 17 years…Education Minister Adrian Piccoli…said Year 9 students next year would be the first to be measured for the standard when they sit the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy tests.” (‘Tough new HSC rules to test 70,000 students’, The Daily Telegraph, July 19th 2016).

That means these changes will be relevant to students in Year 9 this year.

So what now?

The NAPLAN assesses students’ current skills in reading, writing and numeracy. These are foundational skills important to academic success throughout high school and tertiary schooling, as well as in the workplace, as the Education Minister reported to the ABC when introducing these new minimum standards, “So when you walk into a training provider or a university or an employer and you give them your HSC, they know that you’ve met a minimum literacy and numeracy standard.” (‘HSC revamp: New test to set minimum standard for literacy, numeracy in NSW’, ABC, July 19th 2016).

For modern-day students, these basic skills and the ability to adapt them to new information is critical in all aspects of life. However, in the school system with ever-growing class sizes, teachers may find themselves limited in the individual attention they can provide to children, who are often each at different stages in their learning process. According to the Sydney Morning Herald and the Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards respectively, according to 2016 NAPLAN results, ‘half of NSW students would fail the first HSC test’ and ‘about 24% of Year 9 students are at or below the national minimum standard for Reading and about 19% are at or below the standard for Numeracy.’ A view frequently taken is that these students simply ‘fall through the cracks’. At Nepean Tutoring, we do not believe that this is so.

A company founded on the basis of an inherent belief in the potential of NSW students, Nepean Tutoring provides one-on-one support for students that improves not only literacy and numeracy skills, but nurtures confidence that makes independent learners, who believe in their own ability to understand and apply their learning. With the pressure of exams like NAPLAN, this is just as important as knowing the content being assessed.

At Nepean Tutoring, our approach is a comprehensive one and our experienced tutors have themselves excelled in their fields of study. Our tutors offer students an opportunity to engage with class material outside of the distractions of the classroom, to learn at their own pace, and to identify and improve on their specific strengths and weaknesses, which can make all the difference in pushing their marks into the top NAPLAN (and later HSC) bands. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports have showed in the past, tutoring can help struggling students catch up and advance those students already excelling. It is never too early to start, as a good grounding in literacy and numeracy skills puts students in good stead for NAPLAN and HSC success.

Contact us today for more information on how we can help your child to succeed, and build confidence in themselves as 21st century learners.

What does it mean to Differentiate the Curriculum?

A Differentiated curriculum provides students with different avenues to learning so they have access to a variety of processes to acquire knowledge of the content being taught. If children do not have the curriculum differentiated to meet their academic needs, they are likely to find difficulty in understanding or completing classwork and homework. However there is a flip side to the differentiation question. If a student requires academic challenges to meet their needs, it is essential they be given every opportunity to reach their potential.

Thus if a Year Five student is gifted and talented, the curriculum outcomes and activities are planned at a more challenging level than the average outcome for a Year Five student.  Conversely, if a student demonstrates difficulties in their learning, outcomes and activities should be created to provide the student with success in their learning and an opportunity to fill some gaps they may have missed in previous years.

Examples of differentiating the curriculum are the Spelling and Reading groups that evolve in the junior years of school. These are determined by the abilities of each student in the class.  Your child’s ability to handle a certain level of competency in these subjects, therefore determines their ability group level. This can also be the case with writing. For instance,  a writing outcome for a Year Three group might be:

Writes complex sentences which are creative and demonstrate a solid understanding for the use of correct punctuation.

A higher achieving student may be expected to:

Write well structured complex sentences that use sophisticated vocabulary and  a variety of punctuation.

Whereas a child who has difficulties with understanding the structure of writing may have a differentiated outcome that states:

Writes simple sentences with a capital letter at the beginning and a full stop at the end

The creation of a differentiated curriculum requires some pre-planning. It is important to find out what the students already know and their level of skill attainment. These types of pre–tests can provide valuable information about individual differences in ability within the class. The curriculum can then be adjusted accordingly where future lessons can be planned to accommodate higher order tasks for more able students and additional support for those who are struggling. For instance,  during a reading lesson in Year Four more able groups can be given independent  tasks such as comprehension or a written response activity while less able students work with the class teacher on strategies to read difficult words and to develop comprehension through explicit instruction from their teacher.

For the student who is struggling with a concept, the outcome must be adjusted so  he/she can achieve at their level of ability. If understandings are evident, they will be ready to move to the next level with confidence. Imagine if you were expected to answer a Mathematics test on addition with trading when you have no idea how to trade.  It would be much fairer for a student to have a test with questions they can achieve rather than a paper that show 0/10 as the grade.

Below is a very simple idea of the above notion using the Mathematics concept of addition.


(Can calculate vertical addition algorithms)

22 + 5 =       33 + 6 =      28 + 7 =      34 + 5

(Vertical addition without trading)

56 +         47 +          39 +         43 +      65 +

21            32              12           21         40

(Vertical addition with trading)

58 +         39 +       43  +          75 +       84  +

37            15           29              46          69


Differentiation does take times and effort and it is a craft that teachers are very competent at utilising in the general classroom.  However it is often unrealistic to expect every lesson to be differentiated to the extent demonstrated above. Sometimes it may be a simple matter of the quantity of work to be achieved or the time expended on presenting a short talk to the class.

There are many ways the curriculum can be differentiated and this is what we refer to at Nepean Tutoring as “meeting the different needs of all students.” We assess and then determine a starting point to tutor you child based on the results we find. Our service then provides an individualized program that addresses the ability level and other needs of your child.

For more information on differentiation, do a google search. There are some very informative sites on this topic.

Differentiated worksheets and ideas is another service Nepean Tutoring will be offering in the future. This will be a method parents can use to see what their child can actually do independently. Please watch the site for updates of how you can purchase some of our work.