The Big Fat Red Herring that is Differentiation

The word ‘differentiate’ has caused the most damage to students and teachers in the history of education. This article will explain why and what you can do about it.

Teachers’ standards

Section five of the teachers’ standards states ‘Adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils’. Two of the bullet points in this section go on to elucidate how this might be achieved.

  1. know when and how to differentiate appropriately, using approaches which enable pupils to be taught effectively.
  2. have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs; those of high ability; those with English as an additional language; those with disabilities; and be able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them.

 

The Damage

The damage to teachers has been in the way schools have interpreted this word to mean that teachers should prepare different work for each and every sub group of students within each and every lesson. HAPS, MAPS, LAPS, SEND, EAL and pupil premium are all labels to describe categories into which students have been placed so that we can ‘know our students’; but what does this mean in practice? Easy! In each and every lesson we can have a stretch challenge for the HAPS, a writing frame for the MAPS, fill in the blanks for the LAPS, a glossary for the EAL and an additional resource for the SEND and pupil premiums. Even as I write this I can see poor teachers burning out by october half term; shadows of their former selves. But it gets even better! Obviously, we need to be able to show that we are doing this and, bingo!! The ‘all, most, some’; ‘bronze, silver, gold’ or ‘must, should could’ rhetoric is now applied to all lesson outcomes and displayed proudly at the start of each lesson.

Students are not stupid by the way; they know which groups they fall into. In 1968 Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard University professor, and Leonore Jacobson, an elementary school principal in San Francisco, published ‘Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development’. Based on a range of academic studies, the book demonstrates that the expectations that teachers have about their students’ behavior can unwittingly influence such behavior. This influence, also known as self-fulfilling prophecy or the ‘Pygmalion effect’, can have a positive or negative impact on student achievement. In other words, if a teacher expects that certain students will do well, they are likely to do well; if a teacher expects other students to fail, they will be more likely to fail. Such expecations come from the group labels themselves. Sarah is a HAP (high ability pupil) and Chardonnay is a LAP (low ability pupil). what are your expectations for Sarah’s achievement and Chardonnay’s behaviour? Be honest; did Chardonnay’s given name influence your answer?

Self-fulfilling prophecy also affects the way in which students assess their own ability. X believes he is not very good at something and therefore, does not try more difficult tasks. ‘After all, the data says he is a LAP therefore, he cannot be expected to achieve very much’. This is also known as reciprocal determinism. Reciprocal determinism is the theory by psychologist Albert Bandura which states that a person’s behavior both influences and is influenced by personal factors and the social environment. Students and teachers seek out tasks for students based on what they think they can do or what they did last time. Furthermore, the categories that students are put into are arbritary yet so much that happens at school is based on this ‘data’ which hides the richness and complexity of each and evey individual and leads to stereotypical ideas of how students will perform. This is incredibly damaging for students’ academic achievement, confidence and, down the line, their life chances. If you are still not convinced, try out the phrase ‘high expectations for all’ and see how that fits with typical diffentiation strategies.

 

Back to basics

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who studied cognitive development in children in the 1920s and 1930s. He noted that when parents were observed playing with their children they naturally and instinctively did something called scaffolding to help a child solve problems.

For example, a child is doing a new jigsaw puzzle. The mother watches for a while and assesses the child’s attempts. She then makes suggestions such as, ‘Let’s find the corners and then all the edge pieces.’ She may set out the corners so that the child has an idea of the overall size and may fit a couple of pieces together so that he can see how that is done. In this way the mother, or the ‘more knowledgable other‘ (MKO) scaffolds the child’s learning until he can do it for himself. The next time he has a puzzle, he will (having internalised the instruction) sort the pieces for himself. Of course, the MKO may not always be an adult. If a child wishes to improve on the latest X-Box game, he may well be better off asking his friends for guidance!

The other useful concept of Vygotsky’s is the zone of proximal development (ZPD) which he refers to as the transition space between what the learner cannot do and what they can do unaided. Using the jigsaw puzzle analogy again, the child begins at a point where he is not able to do the puzzle and, if left alone, may well give up. He is currently in the ‘learner cannot do’ zone. He is helped into the ZPD by his mother’s encouragement and knowledge on how to solve the puzzle. Once he internalises her approach, he will move to the ‘learner can do unaided’ zone for this particular skill. The middle zone represents the place children must get to (whatever their starting point) so that they can learn to do jigsaw puzzles and sit public exams.

File:Zone of proximal development.svg - Wikimedia Commons

Differentiation and scaffolding in practice

Jonny is a MAP (middle ability student) who is also pupil premium. He is lazy and does not particularly like school and, last night, his mum and dad were arguing which kept him awake. He is still feeling anxious about the argument as he does not really know what it was about but he thought he heard his name mentioned. He is in a science lesson on space, a topic which he studies at home (in secret as his friends would call him a ‘pussy’ if he told them) and quite fancies the ‘gold’ task which is about whether or not we could live on Mars. The ‘silver’ task is to research some facts about Mars, atmosphere, temperature etc. which he already knows. He could try the gold task but he is feeling tired and he remembers the argument. Suddenly, he can’t be bothered and, as the teacher will be satisfied with his choice, he pretends to research facts he already knows.

Now imagine the lesson as a competition for the best poster/presentation on whether we could live on Mars. The teacher has prepared one big question for the lesson; ‘Could we live on Mars?’ and there is one outcome; the answer to that question presented in which ever way the child chooses. The teacher has not spent time preparing different pathways for arbritary groups. Instead, she has provided resources; her own knowledge, books internet sites and you-tube clips and now she goes round from group to group guiding and scaffolding the learning with questions such as ‘have you looked in this book?’ for some and ‘but how would we get enough oxygen?’ for others. She models what a successful finished product might look like, praises effort and challenges everyone at their ZPD organically and naturally, just as a parent would. No child knows what their label is, feels undervalued or stupid and is enjoying the challenge of the task in hand.

 

What to do now

If I have made you drift off into a little utopian bubble, have no fear, this can become a reality. If you teach examinination subjects, all of your students need to pass the exam. They all need to be able to describe, synthesise, apply, analyse and evaluate to some degree or another and ‘high expectations for all’ cannot be achieved unless you teach to the top and then scaffold where needed. Furthermore, you can only do this whilst students are working on a task so that you can diagnose the problem in real time and provide a diagram, model answer or writing frame (which I do there and then; on the spot, depending on the need and not as a ‘here is one I prepared earlier’). So ditch the bronze, silver and gold; have one task that all will complete and become a beautiful organic scaffolder. This is a win, win for all; reducing the ridiculous work load of pre-preparing umpteen colour-coded, learning-outcomes-linked tasks that extend 5% of the class whilst degrading the other 95%. When people ask you,  ‘What are you doing for your HAPS, your EALS and your pupil premiums’? You can reply, ‘The same as I do for everyone; teach, model, develop, scaffold and expect the very best!’