Digging into data to support differentiation

In a recent Teacher column, Professor Geoff Masters AO discussed the importance of challenging our most able students. In this two part series, we look at how one school is using research-informed strategies to extend high achieving students in maths.

Differentiated teaching and learning is a key area of school improvement planning, but to do it effectively you need to know where your students are at in their learning.

At the Australian International School (AIS) in Singapore, teachers are using research-informed strategies to support differentiation in maths in the elementary years, with a focus on extending those students who are at the head of the pack.

The project grew out of a push to improve the collecting, analysis, interpretation and use of student data. Mignon Weckert, Assistant Head of Elementary School at AIS, says examining existing data more effectively highlighted areas for improvement.

‘Maths was fine, but basically [the students] were levelling off and the area of greatest concern was the high achieving students were staying very static,' Weckert tells Teacher.

From there, the leadership team set about collecting more information. ‘We took six to nine months, very much digging deeper into our data in terms of looking at teacher practice and made our teachers very aware of the situation saying “look, here's what the results are telling us. It's not a bad news story, our kids are actually doing quite fine in maths but we're not challenging our upper end … and we need to know the reasons why”.'

Teachers were invited to participate in surveys, which included questions about how much time they spent teaching mathematics, the tools they used and how confident they felt teaching certain topics.

‘We joined collaborative planning teams, where we sat and chatted to teachers, had observations in classrooms, informal walkthroughs … [and] a teacher inquiry group which ran for a semester where a group of teachers who were looking into their practice in mathematics engaged in challenging some of the things that they were doing.'

At the same time as collecting information on teacher practice, Weckert and her colleagues also turned to the research community to look at effective strategies. She says it was important to do that within the context of the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (PYP), which AIS bases its curriculum framework on.

‘So, we've got certain requirements that we need to ensure that we're doing … like not having streaming and ensuring that there's an inquiry-based approach … certain non-negotiables.'

One of the documents AIS looked at was Professor Peter Sullivan's review of research into mathematics teaching (Sullivan, 2011).

‘As we were looking at the different strategies and goals and what the research was telling us, our school also has a staff member who runs a Centre for Innovation in Learning and Leadership - Dr Richard Owens. He said to me “why don't we actually see if the guy who put all the research together would be interested in having a bit of a partnership with us, in terms of identifying where do we need to start and what can we do?”

To their delight, Sullivan agreed to join the project as a critical friend. ‘We knew it couldn't be all about him, that he was very much guiding us …' Weckert says. ‘[It was those discussions that] began the genesis and development of a plan of what this would all look like.'

With Sullivan's guidance, the team came up with an initial three year implementation plan, which began at the start of 2014. One of the goals was to instil collaborative practice across the school for planning, teaching, assessing, and staff reflection.

It also required a curriculum redesign that included explicit guidelines for the teaching of mathematics (timetabling, planning and resources). AIS also chose a consistent teaching text for all staff: Teaching Student-Centred Mathematics by Van der Walle et al.

‘There was virtually a complete rewrite of our scope and sequences, which married the PYP scope and sequences, and aligning them to the Australian Curriculum.'

With 1600 students in the Elementary School (Early Years to Year 5) and up to 12 teachers at each grade level, Weckert says it was important to put systems in place to build consistency of practice.

'So the school really had to then look at how do we [ensure] our Heads of Year are not being drivers of administration, but actually leaders of pedagogy - and that doesn't happen overnight either. We appointed two Heads of Year for each of the grade levels, one purely focused on welfare and admin and the other on curriculum.'

The second key plank of the project was time – taking things slowly and making a long-term commitment. ‘Our first year, the focus was more on the leaders, like the Heads of Year, and helping them to develop their understanding and making sure that for the teachers it was slowly, slowly.

‘[Previously] it was a case of maybe … a maths consultant came in for six months and inspired everybody and away they'd go trying different things, but if it's only for a year nothing gets properly embedded.

'So, it was a bit of a case of initiative overload … we needed to make it very clear to staff that we were taking a long-term approach, it was research-based, you'd be supported with all of this, it's not going to mean dramatic change very quickly but there is an expectation that there will be change.'

The focus of the project is differentiation, in particular challenging more able students.

‘The big thing that Peter Sullivan did throughout all of last year was to really get the teachers to engage with high challenge tasks because that was always our biggest area of concern. In fact, our lower achieving kids were growing tremendously, so whatever we were doing in terms of learning enrichment – fantastic, learning support for those strugglers was going really well. Peter came in very much with those high challenging tasks and allowing kids to struggle, really promoting the growth mindset.'

The academic ran seminars with the teachers, who then trialled the new approaches in their classroom, observed each other and reflected on what had and hadn't worked. At a leadership level, staff workshopped different aspects of mathematics to develop their understanding of big concepts.

‘The Heads of Year … they knew where this was headed, they knew how to start to change the mindset of their teams, the year level teams, rather than everybody sitting in a theatre and we all sit down and go "right this is how we're going to teach maths in the future."

‘So, again pulling out the research about what are the goals for mathematics, what is global research about the effective teaching and learning of mathematics … while at the same time encouraging or expecting our teachers to provide our students with high challenge tasks and gradually build more and more of them into their repertoire …'

Stay tuned for part two of this series where we look at how the project is already making an impact and the next steps.


Sullivan, P. (2011). Teaching Mathematics: Using research-informed strategies. Australian Education Review 59. ACER, Camberwell, Vic.

How are you using student data to inform teaching and learning?

What strategies are you employing in the classroom to extend high achieving students?

As a school leader, do you give staff adequate time to embed new approaches?