Top Nav Breadcrumb

Differentiation in a PYP classroom

The article gives an example of how the principles of Universal Design for Learning can be embedded into a unit of inquiry to purposefully differentiate for all students. The example is from a PYP 1 (age 6) classroom and looks closer at how the principles were used to differentiate mathematical education connected to the unit.   

gingerbread houses

By Susanne Hebnes 

The unit was based around the central idea: Homes and communities around the world reflect cultural influences and local conditionsand as part of the unit the children were going to make gingerbread houses.

The IB recognizes that children enter the school system with different backgrounds, interests, personalities and abilities. Each student is unique, and because of this, our lessons cannot be standardized. The IB believes 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 suggests is planning and teaching through Universal Design for Learning (UDL) (International Baccalaureate Organization, 2016, p13). 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, taking into account 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. 

UDL is based on three principles; Engagement, Representation as well as Action and Expression.

To give you some insight into how we interpret this at Tromsø International School (TRINT), I will give an example from a PYP1 classroom. At TRINT we follow the Norwegian standards for school starting age, so children in PYP1 are turning 6 the year they start. In this article, I will be looking at how we used the principles behind the UDL in one of our units. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on one of the lines of inquiry connected to the concept of form, limiting my example to a small part of the unit. The unit was based around the central idea: Homes and communities around the world reflect cultural influences and local conditionsand as part of the unit the children were going to make gingerbread houses. The houses were inspired by a house that one of their family members could have lived in.

Those who found the task simple were given additional tasks connected to measurement, accuracy and scaling and were questioned on their thinking.

Engagement is about creating a love of learning, exploring errors as a means for learning and triggering the belief that learning is fun, challenging and rewarding. Teachers understand the importance of interest and understand that students’ focus may differ based on their personal inquiry.  

Representation is about ensuring access to what is taught by varying or adding to the material. Through representation, the teacher can ensure that children understand tasks, content and vocabulary.  

Action and Expression is about supporting the students via personal feedback, support and adequate scaffolding. This way, the teacher helps the student navigate through the task and supports the student in reaching realistic goals so that students experience accomplishment and progress. (CAST, 2018). 

The children had all chosen a person in their family they wanted to inquire into. They were supported in asking questions they had by writing letters to this family member and spent the tuning-in process researching both at school and through homework. This created engagement through agency amongst the students and they were exploring the unit together with their family.  

In the tuning-in process we used via various means of representation to ensure access for all students. We worked on a timeline where we posted photos children brought from home, text with explanations and QR-codes with links to videos of the time and place connected to the family member. These supported students in making connections to the central idea. The children were then able to form a hypothesis on how the house this person lived in might look.  

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 through feedback, support and scaffoldingThose who found the task simple were given additional tasks connected to measurement, accuracy and scaling and were questioned on their thinking. 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 provided with sufficient scaffolding in accordance to the idea of action and expression.

Even though I felt that I could assess their learning, they were not fully aware of this themselves.

After the children were happy with their construction, they used their cuttings as a base for the gingerbread house. They reflected on the process, shared ideas and learned 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 student could be asked questions about dimensions, which could be challenged on the difference 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 it helps the students appreciate each other and respect the differences and contributions of all students in the group. A learning environment where students regard each other as valuable supports international mindedness and gives students tools to reflect on their own learning and understanding themselves as lifelong learners.  

The children were engaged in this unit and they were proud of their presentations which included the houses at the end. This article has focused on mathematical differentiation in the unit and it was engaging for me as a teacher to see how they inquired into the connection between shapes, measurement and structure. We had many interesting discussions about why a construction did not work, how to measure, plan and estimate. I was however surprised when the children expressed that they had not done much math in this unit, and it triggered a wider discussion within our staff about being explicit in their learning. Even though I felt that I could assess their learning, they were not fully aware of this themselves. The principle of action and expression is also about students being able to be explicit in their targets and doing this unit again, I would be more thorough in linking their expression to the subject and to their target.  

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 with 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, No Date)



International Baccalaureate Organization (2016).  Learning diversity and inclusion in IB programmes: Removing barriers to learning, International Baccalaureate Organization (UK), Cardiff, Wales 

CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from 

Tromsø International School (no date). Inclusion Policy 


Susanne Hebnes is the PYP coordinator / Head of PYP at Tromsø International School in the north of Norway. Graduated from the university of Tromsø with a Master of Education and started as a PYP 1 homeroom teacher.  I am passionate about primary education and am inspired by the possibilities within the PYP to authentically bridge academic progress with children’s interests and real-life context. I believe a strong foundation and a joy of learning is crucial for further academic progress. 

, , , ,

3 Responses to Differentiation in a PYP classroom

  1. Melissa Lavery 15 July 2021 at 9:55 pm #

    Depending on grade level/UOI needs, I can see how this learning experience can easily be broadened outside of immediate family members and into the community on a local or global scale.

  2. Shantea Cowan 20 July 2021 at 9:49 am #

    This unit was absolutely engaging! I appreciate how students’ needs were met on their levels. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Frank Siddle 22 November 2021 at 6:50 am #

    This is not reflective of UDL as I understand it. The students all made the same product and went through the same process, using the same materials as each other at all steps of the way. The only ‘differentiation’ was through the questioning and support provided by the teacher. This is just differentiation.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.