Today I want to briefly cover the issue of differentiation. In part this is responding to an anonymous blog HERE which suggests that differentiation is a well-intentioned but morally bankrupt educational approach.
“Differentiation was a mistake, it sounded great and we meant well but there are fundamental reasons why it always fails in comparison to whole-class teaching. We are teachers: we are here for our students and our subjects and we’re prepared to change our minds if it means better outcomes for all."
An issue of definitions
For me, the heart of the issue lies in definitions. When people discuss ‘differentiation’ on Twitter, they often use it in the same problematic way which we have seen promoted by Ofsted in the past, as well as some schools and ITE providers. In this definition, ‘Differentiation’ has a capital letter; it becomes the end in itself: “have you done your Differentiation?” The focus in this definition is the act of changing things. This is where coloured sheets, or rainbow groups, or chilli level tasks find their home. Here, all the problems identified in the original blog do arise: a lowering of standards, low expectations, the use of activities which widen gaps, and so on.
“In simple terms, differentiation can be defined as teaching things differently according to certain important differences among learners. In principle, effective differentiation means that education needs of almost all children with disabilities, learning difficulties, language differences and with gifts and talents can all be met in the regular classroom, and with a common curriculum.” (Westwood, 2015, p.161)
So, when is differentiation a moral imperative?
What very few discussions around differentiation engage with on Twitter is the needs of those students who have real and significant needs as outlined in the SEN Code of Practice 2015 (and/or Equality Act 2010), and who are taught in mainstream settings and classrooms. Every year that I taught, I had at least one class where the ability range stretched to the extremes. One Year 9 group for example contained two students who would go on to study at Cambridge, as well as a handful of students who had reading ages of between six and eight years old. In addition to these I had a student who had significant visual impairment, another who had a serious stammer (one of the Cambridge success stories incidentally), and a final student who had a statemented “global learning delay”, which meant that they were operating around a key stage behind other students of their age. I don’t think it would be unusual to find similar classes in every state school today. The key point here is that it would not have been possible to teach all of these students a common curriculum without some level of modification. I had to consider how to differentiate my lesson to achieve the best possible outcomes for all these students. I hasten to add that I did not always get this right!!
By the same token, as many subjects have moved to tierless entry, modification has arguably become more important at Key Stage 4. All students in tierless subjects are required to sit the same paper, regardless of starting point, ability or need. They receive some assistance in their access arrangements – larger fonts, extra time, a laptop, a reader, a scribe – but schools are required to evidence these arrangements as normal working practice for assessments in order to make a claim to them, which makes our consideration of this in the classroom even more important.
The question therefore is how we modify our delivery, or indeed the curriculum, to ensure we still meet ambitious goals and targets for our students. For some of the students in the class described, differentiation was fairly simple. My visually impaired student needed large print texts. My student with a stammer needed to be warned before being asked a question. None of these things changed the level of challenge, and none of them cost me a great deal of time or energy to meet. For some of the others it was more complex. Those students with low reading ages required significant support in order to access the common curriculum. Often this was done through whole class reading (encouraging them also to take their turn) and stopping more frequently to check understanding and clarify definitions. I certainly did this more with this group than with my parallel Year 9 group where the ability gaps were less extreme. This kind of differentiation would not have been obvious to anyone walking in, but it was differentiation none-the-less.
The challenge however was meeting the needs of the student with global learning delay. Her knowledge and understanding of history were so far behind her peers that she could not access much of what they were doing. While some in Year 9 were grappling with the motivations of authors in interpreting the past, she was still coming to grips with the idea that the past was interpreted at all. To plough on regardless of this would have been to ignore her needs completely, and to bring the whole class all the way back to her starting point would have been equally problematic. In this instance the challenge was to build a process of intervention over time to support her in moving beyond the limits of her understanding and to close the gap with her peers. This would not have been possible if she had simply done the same activities as the class: too much was taken for granted as the starting point. Instead I had to plan in the medium term to create the base knowledge needed to access specific work. If we were doing interpretations work for example, then she began by focusing just on the differences between two simple interpretations of events, rather than engaging with the reasons for such differences with the rest of the class. This was supported very well by a clearly briefed teaching assistant. Once she had done this, she could re-join the class to share some of the key differences, before they all considered why those differences might have existed.
Differentiation as professional decision making
Beyond meeting needs of individuals, differentiation is also something which teachers have to consider at a whole class level. It is the professional decision-making which we engage in when considering how best to present something to one group compared to another. It is knowing that one group might need specific knowledge to allow them to answer the bigger questions of the lesson, whereas another group might not. Sometimes these kinds of decisions happen in the moment, as we watch the lesson unfolding. I assume for example that Jonny Porter made a professional decision that acting out a joust in this lovely video was necessary for his 8Z group, rather than simply asking them to learn a definition of what jousting is. Or why Olivia Dyer chose to ask her final question in this clip in two different ways when another class may have grasped the first question adequately. These are the kinds of professional decisions teachers make about differentiation every day. As with every decision though, it is also about considering our choices carefully to ensure that remain ambitious for all our groups as well.
Of course, the bigger part of differentiation happens not at the lesson level, but at the level of medium-term planning. Again, this is not always obvious to someone visiting a class, but if we are to be ambitious for all our students, then we need to have the bigger picture of where we want them to be. We need to know where it is possible to engage in acceptable simplification, and where it is necessary for us to backfill knowledge gaps. I have written about this kind of thing before with regard to Fred and his English lessons in 1960s Bradford. By considering our medium and longer term goals, it is possible to be ambitious for all of our students AND meet their needs effectively. This is something which Rich Kerridge discusses brilliantly in his article “Learning without limits” (2017).
“The first step I took was to change the way I present lessons to all my groups as a result of trying to build self-esteem with ‘bottom sets’. If I differentiate my lesson objectives, I am effectively telling some members of any group that it’s ok not to reach the hardest objective… I could not look my students in the eye and tell them, ‘This objective is for you… but the other two will probably be too hard for you. They are for the top set to think about.’ How on earth would that help to rebuild their destroyed dignity? I deleted every such objective from my lessons and started again. Now my lesson objectives are actually the enquiry question for that sequence of lessons. I no longer have single-lesson objectives when it is the big picture enquiry question I want them to really grapple with. So, the sequence of lessons studying trench warfare has the enquiry question, ‘What was life really like in the trenches of the First World War?’…I think I am making it more complicated but with careful explanation on my part I can provide the link to the main enquiry question lesson by lesson. I hope that I am modelling the historical process of gathering information and challenging existing hypotheses (the use of the word ‘really’ in the enquiry question above helps me here) so the students can see how the enquiry question is key rather than individual lesson objectives. And there is the expectation that they will be able to answer the question rather than look at some objectives that they are not expected to meet."
I think the most important thing we need to do when considering differentiation, or indeed any aspect of our professional lives as teachers, is to recognise that things are not divided into neat binaries. I hope I have gone some way here to showing that differentiation is more than coloured sheets and low expectations, and that sometimes differentiation (done well) is absolutely a moral imperative. But more than that, I hope I have made a case for why rejecting the maxim: “Differentiation is a Good Thing” with the maxim “Differentiation is a Bad Thing” is just as problematic when it comes to encouraging teachers to act as professionals.