What every teacher needs to know about differentiation

  • What every teacher needs to know about differentiation

Of all the impossible tasks expected of poor, over-worked teachers, differentiation is one of the most troublesome. The generally accepted position is that it is wholly good, and this is the cause of the wracking guilt felt by harrowed teachers: because it may well be good, but it’s bloody hard work.

The ideal to which we’re supposed to aspire is for teaching to be customised for every student; everyone should receive a tailor-made curriculum that meets his or her individual and unique needs. If this sounds unrealistically onerous to you, then you’re not alone. Perhaps it sounds more reasonable to say that differentiation is a process of acknowledging that all children are different and treating them accordingly? Even then this leads to overstretched teachers feeling guilty about not being able to do the impossible.

But maybe, just maybe, our anger and guilt are misplaced. Perhaps differences matter less than we suppose. Just like snowflakes, human beings are all special, beautiful and entirely individual. But as the philosopher, CS Peirce put it, “For a difference to be a difference, it must make a difference.” When it snows the difference between individual flakes is irrelevant. And for all we each possess our very own unique permutations of DNA, the fact that our physiognomies are broadly the same means we learn and behave in broadly similar ways. Of course we have an infinite variety of differences in ability, but the way we learn is surprisingly similar.

Defining terms

Like many of the slippery terms used in education, differentiation can mean all sorts of things depending on who’s talking and in what context. Does it mean coping with difference? Learning for all? Success for all? As the landscape’s changed over the past few years, there’s an increasing consensus that ‘success’ should be differentiated; our examinations demand winners and losers. Where does this shifting terrain leave us? Claiming that differentiation just means we’re special and different and should be treated as such is bland to the point of meaninglessness.

So let me offer my definition of differentiation: Getting all pupils to do something they find challenging. Every student should struggle, no matter his or her ability. If we differentiate classroom experiences based on our preceptions of students’ abilities then we guarantee our predictions will come to pass.

But how should we make decisions about who needs to struggle less? Formative assessment only allows us to make (often erroneous) inferences about what’s happening inside students’ heads. That’s fine if we’re making decisions about whether we need to explain a point in more detail or provide more opportunity to practise a tricky concept, but it’s nowhere near precise enough to decide that certain students should not be taught certain content.

Thankfully, there’s another, perhaps better way to differentiate. What if we assumed all children were capable of understanding and had the same high expectations of them all? At certain points in the unfolding of a curriculum, students – because they are novices – benefit most from being taught by experts. As soon as they acquire some expertise then of course they should be allowed, indeed encouraged, to forge ahead on their own. My view is that although teacher-led instruction might have its flaws and failings, it’s more effective than any other form of instruction.

Natural reactions

Ill conceived ideas about differentiation could lead to teachers denying students access to ideas that might take time to click into place. Our emotional responses can be interpreted as low expectations. It’s very hard to maintain high expectations of students you perceive as ‘low ability’. Supportive and sympathetic teachers might unwittingly be communicating that they don’t expect quite so much from their students.

Fascinatingly, when teachers are irritated or annoyed by poor outcomes, students tend to interpret this reaction as demonstrating that the outcome was within their control. After all, who would get angry with something that was simply beyond your ability? It could be that withholding sympathy and support will actually result in students deciding we have higher expectations of them.

If we seek to make classwork easier, students may decide we have low expectations. It’s not too great a surprise to find that if students become aware they are being treated differently, they decide they are less. All pupils need to spend time struggling; but some need to struggle for longer. So this is how I think we should best approach differentiation. Not as a back-breaking exercise in producing teetering piles of pointless paperwork, but by having consistently high expectations of every student we teach, regardless of their ability and by encouraging them to make, and learn from, their mistakes. Meeting these expectations takes time. It’s as meaningless to expect to see differentatiation in a single lesson as it is to see progress. Effective differentiation takes place over months, not hours.

About the author

David has run two English departments and been an assistant head with responsibility for teaching and learning. He is the author of the best-selling ‘the perfect English lesson’ and his latest title, ‘the secret of literacy’.