Why we’ve got differentiation wrong.

I hate the way that many of us teachers are encouraged to differentiate, and the way that many teachers understand the term. In contemporary education, differentiation has, for many practitioners, become synonymous with “dumbing down”. Providing
easier tasks for “weaker” students, displaying differentiated outcomes (especially of the “must, should, could” variety) and texts where “difficult” words have been removed or replaced to allow the “weakest” to read them, is all symptomatic of a lowering of expectations and the acceptance that many students just can’t access complex material. To me, this approach is defeatist and is the root of the problem where low levels of literacy are to be found. Acceptance of such a view becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the students who are only ever expected to reach the “must” objective or who are never exposed to complex vocabulary will never push themselves to grapple with difficult concepts or great pieces of writing.

Let’s start with differentiation by task. I’m all for providing a menu of equally challenging tasks that stretch students so that they really have to think hard. But this is still expecting everyone to excel at the task they do, and to me all tasks should allow students to demonstrate the highest level of skills (in SOLO language, working at the extended abstract level, or, in Bloom’s, analysing, evaluating and creating). Because some of my students have targets of D or E, I don’t expect them to show me that they can list or identify a bunch of facts and then stop there. I still want them to think about and show me how these facts link together or how these facts have an effect on another factor. And there is no doubt that with a little more support and given a bit more time, they are perfectly capable of doing these things. If tasks are differentiated by the level they allow students to achieve, we are simply capping aspiration and achievement and allowing them to opt for failure, or at least a lesser level of success.

The same goes for the awful notion of differentiated objectives, differentiated by level of achievement and by modal verbs. “All students must choose effective vocabulary; most students should choose effective vocabulary and justify that choice; some students could choose effective vocabulary and justify their choice by explaining the effect on the reader”. No. I’m sorry, but no. Absolutely not. I want every single student in the room to be able to choose effective vocabulary and justify that choice in relation to its potential effect on the reader. And if they can’t then I obviously haven’t supported them successfully to ensure that they can do it, and I need to tune the way that I teach and support them to make sure that next time they can. Again, by lowering expectations for some students, we are capping aspiration and potential achievement.

And as for simplifying texts, there is no need. Let’s just take a bit longer to work out why this text is trickier or why that sentence is harder to understand, and then provide students with the tools to understand it. On every table in my lessons there are 2-6 students, which equates to 2-6 perfectly workable brains. They have a pile of dictionaries on the desk. Often they have access to a laptop or two. There is sometimes a TA in the room. And then there’s me wandering about as a last resort. You can’t tell me that there is a secondary school child alive that can’t understand a text with that amount of support around him (I am referring to those without serious afflictions in mainstream education here).

What I am really keen to get away from in my lessons is this notion that some students can do things and others can’t. They can all do it, but some better than others. And I want them to get away from the notion that it matters in any way if they do get it wrong. By getting it wrong they can surely realise how to get better next time.

I was catalysed into writing this (which is a philosophy that I’ve been militantly applying in my own little bubble for years now) today after an incident this morning. My set 5, “LAS” “SEN” group had started the lesson by brainstorming a list of adjectives that would describe Juliet’s feelings on finding out that her husband had killed her cousin and then been banished. They were then encouraged to weave these words into a beautifully written paragraph that would describe and explain her feelings. Later, I wanted some of them to share what they had written by reading aloud. I got several negative responses from students who said they “don’t read aloud” and who justified this by reference to a “learning passport” issued by the support department that insists they shouldn’t read aloud in lessons.

My response? Forget that. You’ll never read aloud if you don’t read aloud. What a crazy, insane way to help them to improve. If you’re not very good at something, even if it’s one of the things that will really help you to succeed in life, then you don’t have to do it in case you get embarrassed? Nonsense. Common sense says the more you do it the less embarrassed you’ll be till eventually you’ll find it easy and normal. I put it to these refusers that if, in a games lesson, they were asked to kick a ball, would they refuse to do it because they weren’t very good at it? Would they pull out their learning passport that said they shouldn’t do it, worried that they’d get embarrassed? Of course not. They’d just kick the bloody thing. And if it went in the wrong direction there’d be a few surprised chuckles, the teacher would give them some feedback and they’d try again, and probably do a better job next time. At the end of this discussion, only one refuser stubbornly clung on to his excuse card.

We have to give our students the opportunity to fail at the things they need to improve at, otherwise they won’t be able to get feedback and improve. We need to make them understand that messing something up or getting it wrong or failing at it is all part of the process of understanding how to do it well. If we provide them with excuses to avoid these challenging and difficult situations, we are simply setting them up for a lifetime of self-conscious embarrassment where they are doomed to go round and round in circles of failure, never getting better at anything for fear of getting it wrong. Differentiation, in my view, is about finding ways to give everyone the opportunity and the tools to reach the top, not about providing excuses not to try, and therefore placing a cap on aspiration and achievement. Get it wrong, learn from it, try again, do it better. It’s obvious, surely.

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About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

11 responses to “Why we’ve got differentiation wrong.”

  1. Fatima Duerden says :

    Totally agree!

  2. Embedding Differentiation and Challenge says :

    Reblogged this on Embedding Differentiation and Challenge and commented:
    I while heartedly agree. Differentiation i not about dumbing down but is about challenge for all.

  3. Glenn SMITH says :

    A great article – I couldn’t agree more. I think that differentiation removes the responsibility from the student and creates another burden for the teacher. Students need to learn to deal with things which they find difficult otherwise they will encounter significant barriers in life.

  4. Sue Cowley says :

    You’re absolutely right, great point.
    This really made me think, thanks.
    Everyone has the right to take risks, and must learn how to cope with failure, not just the most able.

  5. CristinaM. says :

    Provocative read. Loved it. I wish more educators would.

  6. suecowley says :

    Of course you are differentiating by support via the TA and the dictionaries and the groupings. I think often we differentiate and don’t even realise we’re doing it, just not in the ‘different tasks/outcomes’ way.

  7. mrsjacksonmusic says :

    Love this post- it’s exactly how I feel at the moment. I’ve been getting it wrong, differentiating from the wrong end. Excellent post.

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