A 5-Minute Guide to: Differentiation

Different and the same

Students are all different. They arrive at our lessons knowing and being able to do all kinds of different things. This is entirely natural and something we will never be able to change. Which is fine – difference is very often a good thing!

An exception is when it comes to students learning what we plan for them to learn. Here, difference isn’t a good thing. We want all students to learn everything set out in our curriculum. However aspirational this aim might be, it is what all teachers should be aiming for.

This does not mean that we are aiming to produce clones. Far from it! Rather, it means that we want all students to know and be able to do specific things, as a minimum. In other words, we want all students to learn our core curriculum. This is about social justice and inclusion. It might take some longer than others, and some might need more support than others, but everyone should be aiming to learn this curriculum, in full.

Students will apply their learning from the core curriculum in different ways, both in and out of school. Some will extend it, others won’t. Some will use it creatively, others won’t. Such differences in how learning is applied are not particularly important. What is most important is that all students have the opportunity to choose what to do with their learning from our core curriculum. This means that all students need to have been taught it.

If we think it is okay for different students to learn more or less than others, this suggests we think it is okay for different students to have different opportunities once they leave school. I do not think this is okay. As teachers and school leaders, we should be doing as much as we can to ensure that every student has the same opportunity. This means that we need to do as much as we can to teach them all the same core curriculum.

Mutated differentiation

Hands up if someone has observed a lesson you taught and told you: ‘You need to differentiate more.’ Hands up if you have observed a lesson and suggested the same to the teacher. If your hand isn’t up, I’m going to suggest that you are in the minority. Differentiation has become an all- consuming beast in schools. This isn’t a good thing.

Like so many principles and initiatives in education, ‘differentiation’ has evolved into something it never should have been: it has undergone a ‘lethal mutation’.1

In theory, the principle that teachers should take steps to cater for natural differences between students is a sensible and equitable one. However, this does not mean that different students in a class should be taught:

  • different things (that is, different curricula)
  • in different ways (that is, using different pedagogy).

Sadly, this is often misunderstood. In a misguided attempt to ‘personalise’ the curriculum according to interest and preference, some schools advocate approaches designed to do exactly this. They are making a big mistake. Principally, there are two reasons why.

Consuming time and learning gaps

The first is that such approaches to differentiation consume teacher time to such an extent that it not only becomes unreasonable, but unmanageable. The perceived benefits could never balance with the very real costs. No teacher should be expected to differentiate like this. Ever.

Secondly, differentiating in this way creates learning gaps. If students learn different things, a gap between what one student knows compared to another automatically appears. If students are taught in different ways, some will learn in the best ways, and some won’t. Common sense tells us this will also lead to gaps.

Ironically, gaps are the very thing that differentiation should be fighting to prevent. ‘Equity of opportunity’ through access to a core curriculum, and ‘differentiation’ as different content and activities, are diametrically opposed to one another.

The problems with a personalised approach

Bart Simpson Descriptive Personality Statistics

In a personalised approach to learning, all students will learn to some extent. However, this extent will differ from student to student, depending on what they are being taught and how. The gap between students who know and can do the most and students who know and can do the least will never be closed.

In The Teaching Delusion, I quoted Bart Simpson and I think the quotation is appropriate again here:

‘Let me get this straight. We’re behind the rest of our class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are?’

In an equitable education, we don’t permit gaps: we are aiming to create a level playing field. No matter what their background circumstances, or what they have or haven’t previously learned, by the time they leave our class – our school – they will have had the same opportunity to learn the same core things.

The class as ‘a unit’

To avoid the gaps we are discussing, we need to think about our class as ‘a unit’. This means that, typically, we aren’t going to have students learning different things or engaging in different activities. Some might be at different points within the same activity, but as far as is possible, we are going to strive to keep the learning of everyone together. Different students will need different levels of support, and some will be able to cope with more challenge more quickly than others, but we aren’t going to start segregating students within our class and deliberately create learning gaps.

This is how we should be thinking about differentiation in schools: differing levels of support and challenge as common content is taught. We can reasonably expect teachers to be able to do this, and it won’t create learning gaps.

The 80% Success Rule

Guiding our thinking about the class as ‘a unit’ should be the 80% Success Rule that we discussed in the previous chapter: before we move on, we want at least 80% of the class to be demonstrating success.

In the longer term, we will be aiming for 100%. However, achieving 100% in the short term is rarely possible. Natural differences in ability will mean different students master things at different speeds. A balance needs to be struck between taking everyone’s learning forward together and holding back the learning of those who are ready to move on.

In the interests of maintaining an optimal pace, once an 80% threshold has been reached, teaching should probably move on. However, the teacher should clock which students need extra support at a future point. This might be during the ‘supported practice’ phase of learning that we discussed in the previous section, or particular students might be invited to attend out-of-class small-group tuition.

We aren’t saying that we are okay with 20% of the class not ‘getting it’. We are saying that, realistically, there will always be students in our class who struggle and who require extra support. We need to clock who these students are and ensure there are opportunities for them to get this at a future time. This is formative assessment in action.

Access to support

At any point within any learning sequence, any student may require support. This can come from the teacher, from peers or from resources created for this very purpose. Getting the support matters more than the form it takes.

Challenge

As important as ensuring that all students have access to appropriate support when they need it is ensuring all students are appropriately challenged. When we get this right, we propel learning forward. When we get this wrong, we slow learning down. But what is an appropriate level of challenge?

Jumping ditches

To consider this, let’s think about the challenge of jumping across a ditch. If the ditch you are to jump across is one metre wide, that’s probably not much of a challenge. You could do it, but it wouldn’t prove particularly satisfying or memorable.

Now consider a ditch that’s three metres wide. Jumping over this is more of a challenge. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. It will require more work than a one-metre ditch. Rather than jump from a standing position, you will probably have to take a run at it. If you clear it, you will feel a sense of achievement. You will probably remember the experience more than you would have for a one-metre ditch. The memory is ‘sticky’, so if you come across another three-metre ditch in the future, you will feel more confident about jumping it. You might even be prepared to have a go at jumping an even wider ditch, your success having boosted your confidence.

However, if you had tried and failed to jump an even wider ditch before having success with the three-metre one, you might not have bothered with the three-metre ditch, deciding that you don’t really like jumping ditches and you’ll look for a bridge instead.

To move student learning forward as best we can, we need them to jump three-metre ditches, not one-metre ones. Three-metre ditches are about desirable difficulties.2 Jumping them propels learning further and faster than jumping one-metre ditches does. Unlike what happens when the students jump wider ditches, here they won’t fall in.

Taken from The Teaching Delusion 3: Power Up Your Pedagogy by Bruce Robertson, published by John Catt Educational. 

Available at:

References

  1. ‘Lethal mutations’ is a phrase coined by Ed Haertel, referenced in: https://www.dylanwiliamcenter.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2020/10/DW02-01-Chapter-X-TLC-Paper-03-05-17-Digital.pdf.
  2. Bjork, E.L. and Bjork, R.A. (2014) ‘Making Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning’. In Gernsbacher, M.A. and Pomerantz, J. (eds) Psychology and The Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society (2nd edition). New York, NY: Worth, pp. 59–68.

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