Differentiation · Education · Teaching

Differentiation: The high wire act of teaching.

Greg Ashman has written two blogs about differentiation recently.

In “who killed Bambi” style he will be pilloried by education academics. Differentiation is a seen by most educators are a universal “good”. Differentiation is good. Not differentiating is bad. Effective differentiation is what sets an excellent teacher apart from a merely adequate teacher. Ashman has questioned the orthodoxy of differentiation.

Please read Greg’s work on this as he is way more coherent than me.

My thoughts on differentiation.

Our local Principal network used to do walkthroughs at each other’s schools. Feedback from Principals after most walkthroughs of Secondary Schools, “I didn’t see much differentiation. All the students in the class seemed to be given the same task. There was a lot of whole class teaching.”

Differentiation, as Greg points out, is a poorly defined term. For me the gold standard of differentiation would be task differentiation. This is where the teacher is aware of the range of abilities in a class and prepares three or four levels of work for the different student groups. The increase in workload for teachers here is massive. It is hard enough to prepare one great lesson, let alone three or four. It was not surprising that our walkthrough Principals didn’t see multiple levels of work very often.

Secondary students often don’t want be given different work to other students. The desire to fit in with the peer group is incredibly strong for teenagers. They know they are in the dumb group even if you label the groups pears, bananas and apples. The Year 9 Boy who is given the Grade 6 Maths Mate to work on, knows his place.

Some IT products like education perfect allow us to assign different work at different levels and the students don’t actually know. These products make differentiation largely invisible from the student point of view. The students don’t even know we are differentiating but it still creates significant workload issues to teachers.

Differentiation is desirable but it is mighty hard to do. I describe differentiation to young teachers as “The high wire act of teaching”. Teachers need to learn to crawl, then walk, then jog, then run, then and only then, start to think about wire walking. They should use a safety net first.

I defended a young teacher at my school against a criticism that “All students were doing the same task.” She had been teaching 12 weeks, barely knew the students or the curriculum and running the room was her primary concern. Asking her to prepare 3 levels of work for each of her four classes would be ridiculous.

The Victorian Government has produced a document outlining what it calls, High Impact Teaching Strategies.

According to the Government, “The HITS are 10 instructional practices that reliably increase student learning wherever they are applied.”

For teachers to get full registration to teach they have to select one or two of the HITS to focus on and document how they are using this strategy.  They work with a mentor to get feedback on their classroom implementation of the strategy. Our graduate teachers invariably pick “Differentiated teaching” as their focus. Their Initial Teacher Training courses have drummed into them that they need to be differentiating every lesson.

I tell them the high wire story. Of the 10 HITS, Differentiated teaching is the hardest to do well. It also has the weakest evidence base. They should work on Explicit Teaching, Questioning and Feedback first. These will lead to higher learning gains for students.  

Each year Victorian schools have to administer the Attitudes to School Survey. All students in the state are surveyed and school’s results are compared. The survey has a section on Differentiated learning challenge.

These are the questions in this section.

  1. My teachers understand how I learn
  2. My teachers explain things in different ways to students who need it
  3. My teachers give extra help when students need it
  4. My teachers give different work to students depending on their ability
  5. If I don’t understand something, my teachers explain it another way

This adds further weight to Ashman’s argument that Differentiation is a “catch all term” that is almost meaningless now. When I read these questions only Question 4: My teachers give different work to students depending on their ability, actually directly addresses what I regard as differentiation.

Question 1. “My teachers understand how I learn.” Could be interpreted through the lens of “learning styles” and personalized learning. We are asking students with the assumption that they “understand how they learn.” Somehow Year 8 students are expected to have more knowledge of cognitive architecture and learning theory than their their tertiary educated teachers. Do students actually understand how they learn?

Here a great diagram for anyone who is unsure.

Question 2,3 and 5 are basically asking, “Is my teacher good at teaching?” Explaining things in different ways, providing extra help when needed, and being able to check for and respond to misunderstanding is what good teachers can do, and poor teachers struggle with. These questions are not specifically about Differentiation. Less than 50% of Victorian secondary students either agree or strongly agree with Question 4. “My teachers give different work to students depending on their ability”. The percentage of secondary students who agree or strongly agree with Question 1. “My teachers understand how I learn.” Is also less than 50%.

So, am I saying forget about Differentiation?

No, I’m not.

 I’m saying work on HITS 1 to 9 first and once you have nailed them, you probably won’t need to differentiate much at all. If you do need to differentiate you may then be in reasonable shape to do so effectively.

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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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