Differentiation in a PYP Classroom

An example of teaching through Universal Design for Learning from Tromsø International School

Written by Susanne Hebnes, November 2018


The IB recognizes that children enter the school system with diverse backgrounds, diverse interests, diverse personalities and diverse abilities. Each student is unique, and because of this, our lessons cannot be standardized. The IB believe in full inclusion, which means that children should be able to learn on their own terms within the same context. One of the means the IB suggest is planning and teaching through Universal Design for Learning (UDL) (International Baccalaureate Organization, 2016, p. 11). UDL is a research-based approach, introduced by CAST in the 1990’s. It emphasizes that a task should be designed to fit all learners, considering the uniqueness of every student (CAST, 2018). In a PYP-classroom this is done through purposefully planned inquiry with open-ended tasks, creating opportunities for children to advance and learn from each other and allowing teachers to challenge students at various levels (International Baccalaureate Organization, 2016).

To give you some insight into how we interpret this in TRINT I will give an example from a PYP 1 classroom. For this article, I will focus on one of the lines of inquiry, limiting my example to a small part of the unit. The unit was about homes and communities, based around the central idea: Homes and communities around the world reflect cultural influences and local conditions. We inquired into the concept of form, and the children were going to make gingerbread houses inspired by a house that one of their family members could have lived in. I will use the UDL principles to show how differentiation can be done in a PYP classroom.


The UDL is based on three principles; Representation, Action and Expression and Engagement. Through Representation the teacher helps children activate prior knowledge by tuning in via various means, taking into account learning styles, challenges and levels. This gives children opportunities to contribute to and understand the inquiry. Through Action and Expression, the teacher supports the students via personal feedback, support and adequate scaffolding. This way, students may be challenged at their level and experience a sense of accomplishment and progress. Through Engagement, teachers understand the importance of interest and understand that the students’ focus may differ based on their personal inquiry. Engagement is also about creating a love of learning, exploring errors as a mean for learning and triggering the belief that learning is fun, challenging and rewarding (CAST, 2018).







The children had all chosen a person in their family they wanted to inquire into. Based on the tuning in process via various means of representation (such as guided research, homework, exploring vocabulary and so on) the children formed a hypothesis on how the house this person lived in might have looked like. They were then given glue, paper and scissors and asked to try to construct a model of this house. In this process the children were supported on their own terms. Those who found this task simple were given additional tasks connected to measurement, accuracy and scaling and were questioned on their thinking while the children who found the task hard were aided by the teacher through questions on how they had thought, what did not work and help to see how they could be successful. This way the children were challenged and were provided with sufficient scaffolding in accordance to the UDL-principle of actions and expression.


After the children were happy with their construction they reflected on the process, sharing ideas and learning from each other. Some might have discovered that the roof did not fit because it had four edges while the house had five walls, and they had to fix this. Others experienced that they could not make a prism-shaped roof using four triangles. One student saw that he could draw a house in two dimensions, but then fold it to be three dimensional. Through this discussion I knew which students could be asked questions about dimensions, which could be challenged on the differences between rectangles and squares, circles and ovals, and so on. When they are explaining this in their own words, they learn, and the other students learn from their reflections. This creates a sense of engagement and enjoyment of learning in that helps the students appreciate each other and respect the differences and contributions of all students in the group. The children could then proceed to make the ginger-bread house.


In this article I have provided a window to how we think about differentiation and inclusion in Tromsø International School. We strive to provide education in accordance to the International Baccalaureate, and this is reflected in our Inclusion Policy. The emphasis on respecting every student’s strength and interest, as exemplified through the Universal Design of Learning in this article, is something all teachers are committed to. Our Inclusion Policy states that:

‘At Tromsø International School, we value our students’ diversity and provide them equal opportunities to engage in the curriculum. We are committed to creating an inclusive learning environment, so they can affirm their identity and ‘reach their full potential’.

 (Tromsø International School, n.d.)


Cited work:

CAST, 2018. CAST Timeline. [Internett] Available at: http://www.cast.org/about/timeline.html#.W_Po6OhKg2w
[Accessed 18 November 2018].

CAST, 2018. The UDL Guidelines. [Internett] Available at: http://udlguidelines.cast.org/?utm_medium=web&utm_campaign=none&utm_source=cast-about-udl
[Accessed 18 November 2018].

International Baccalaureate Organization, 2016. Learning diversity and inclusion in IB programmes, Geneva: International Baccalaureate Organization.

International Baccalaureate Organization, 2016. Programme standards and practices, Wales: International Baccalaureate Organization.

Tromsø International School, n.d. Inclusion Policy. [Online] Available at: https://sites.google.com/view/trintstudenthandbook/school-policies?authuser=0
[Accessed 18 November 2018].