We need to talk about differentiation. Or do we?

Photo by Rifqi Ramadhan on Pexels.com

A common piece of feedback that teachers get from lesson observations is something along the lines of “You need to differentiate better.” There are many variations on this theme, whether it’s about scaffolding for lower attaining students or stretch and challenge for those at the top end*. It’s something about which I’ve both received and given feedback on numerous occasions in the past, and for a long time I perceived this to be the holy grail of teaching.

One of the problems here is that differentiation is such a nebulous term and can mean different things to different people. For some it’s synonymous with scaffolding whereas for others one is a strategy to support the other. In the past, no doubt driven by the Ofsted framework, it’s been interpreted to mean designing different tasks for different groups of students based on their starting points. In recent times there’s been a move away from this towards a principle of ‘teach to the top and scaffold down’ which certainly seems an improvement, although this is not always as straightforward as it sounds. Both Tom Sherrington (here) and Emma Turner (here) have written excellent pieces on differentiation, arguing for a more meaningful discussion about what it actually means in practice, and the dangers of dismissing it as a term altogether.

I think a big objection for me was that such feedback rarely included clear, concrete suggestions for how to do it. As an improvement target, then, it is as helpful as saying things like “you need more pace” or “your explanations need to be clearer”; there is no mechanism to turn these generally well-meaning intentions into specific actions in the classroom. A second problem is that differentiation has often been taken to mean add something more to your lesson (eg an extra resource or another activity) rather than addressing some of the other problems coming from ‘upstream’ in the lesson which might need dealing with instead. In this post I want to consider an example to illustrate both problems:

Neil is an experienced teacher with strong subject knowledge. In a recent department meeting he expressed the concern that he wasn’t differentiating effectively, especially catering to the more able students.

I feel like I’m just pitching to the middle, or even to the weakest in the class. The brighter ones are sometimes left twiddling their thumbs because they’ve completed the work quickly and don’t have something else to do. I can’t go and spend time talking to them and stretching them because I have to deal with the weaker students. As soon as I set them off on a task they need help straight away, and don’t focus on it unless I stand over them. They never seem to have listened properly to the instructions and can’t follow the steps I’ve explained and are also written on the board. I need some ideas for things to give the more able students so I can support the rest of the class.

I don’t think this is an uncommon scenario, and certainly it’s something I’ve thought or said about my own teaching in the past. For Neil, the answer is better differentiation. He already feels he is supporting the more challenging students and so he now needs extension tasks for the more able to keep them occupied while he sorts out the rest. And so the conversation may turn to ideas for what to give those students to do. In amongst that conversation may well be some really good ideas, although we must be cautious about suggestions that: 

  • Require significant additional work from the teacher in terms of creating extra resources
    • (here’s a whole extra worksheet I’ve written just for one or two students)
  • Lead to tasks which make the students focus more on form rather than content
    • (make a poster/write a rap summarising what we’ve been learning about)
  • Move the students’ thinking to a related but different set of ideas which may distract them from the core content
    • (look up this really interesting extra case study)

However, while I think there are plenty of ideas that are valid ways to stretch our strongest students, I think it may also be failing to address the real problem. Let’s consider some of the different things that Neil says about his class, and unpick some of the other issues at play:

What does Neil say?What might the issues be?
I feel like I’m just pitching to the middle, or even to the weakest in the class. The brighter ones are sometimes left twiddling their thumbs because they’ve completed the work quickly and don’t have something else to do.Neil might not have made his lesson challenging enough. If some students are finishing too quickly then perhaps he has overly low expectations about what the rest of the class might be able to achieve. 
I can’t go and spend time talking to them and stretching them because I have to deal with the weaker students. As soon as I set them off on a task they need help straight away…Neil’s students (some of them at least) seem to have gotten into a state of learned helplessness. They won’t attempt to do something on their own because they don’t think they know how to succeed. 
…and don’t focus on it unless I stand over themNeil might not have established clear routines and expectations around behaviour, and students therefore can’t work independently.
They never seem to have listened properly to the instructions…Neil might have given his instructions but not ensured that students were paying attention whilst doing so or checked they have understood them
…and can’t follow the steps I’ve explained and are also written on the boardNeil might have explained what the steps are but not adequately modelled how to follow them and what this looks like

It’s clear, then, that Neil might need to address a number of different issues before worrying about any kind of extension tasks. Some concrete actions we might suggest could be:

  • Increase the challenge of his lesson/activity by including a wider range of examples/problems that get progressively more difficult
  • Allow students to have time to settle and start work on a problem before rushing to give help by using the 3:30:30 principle
  • Ensuring students are focused on him during instruction by giving clear cues such as “pens down, eyes on me” (having first explained precisely the purpose of this, and given the class opportunity to practice the routine) 
  • Checking that instructions have been understood by getting a student to repeat them back, asking them to recap in pairs, or using whole-class choral response
  • Clarifying expectations by modelling clearly what he wants students to do using I do – We do – You do

Summary

Differentiation is often considered an important part of teaching but feedback on it may not lead to any concrete improvements. Problems with differentiation may actually be a result of a range of other issues ‘upstream’ which should be considered first. Being able to recognise and diagnose this takes a level of critical self-reflection, and a strong mental model of what good teaching looks like. How to help support teachers with is something I intend to consider in a future post.

*A note on language. While I don’t like the terms stronger/weaker, more/less able or similar, these are still the terms that many teachers use in this context. It is important that this gets addressed, but that is neither the scope of this discussion nor should be the focus of these conversations, where it may distract from the much bigger issue at hand.

3 thoughts on “We need to talk about differentiation. Or do we?

  1. Dear Paul. Thanks for a really good read. Actually I wanted to get your opinion on your note on language comment. Have you written on this anywhere? I am really against use of this language and would very much appreciate your thoughts on use of terms such as higher and lower ability to describe children

    Like

    1. Hi Alan,

      Thanks for reading, I’m glad you liked it. I’ve not written anything on this though I’m sure others have. I know many people now refer to pupils in terms of prior attainment rather than ability which seems to be a better way to go – and more accurate in the sense that you can measure attainment more clearly than ability. That said, I think it’ll be a long while before we see a complete sea change in the sector.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: