Re-Thinking Differentiation

Have We Actually Been Widening the Achievement Gap?

This post was written by Jon Tait @TeamTait.
Differentiation has long been the nemesis of every trainee teacher in the land. It’s one thing getting to grips with behaviour management, building relationships with children, marking books and planning lessons….but when you first learn that you should be differentiating your lessons to address the individual needs of every one of the 30 students in front of you, it can make you question your vocation. It’s like the doctor in the hospital being asked to diagnose and treat all of the patients in the waiting room at the same time without the luxury of individual appointments.
For years we have been training teachers on all kinds of differentiation strategies in the classroom. From different resources to extension work we have tried to make learning accessible for all, but in the process have we actually been doing more harm than good?
In most cases over the past 10-15 years in the UK, teachers have been taught to almost ‘dumb down’ the subject content so that it makes it easier for statistically weaker students to understand. Aspirations have been lowered for our less able and ceilings of achievement placed upon them by a distinct lack of opportunity to access the skills and content needed for the higher grades in that subject. Schemes of learning are usually simplified for lower groups with entire sections of the syllabus sometimes omitted for these students because ‘it will probably be too hard for them’.
So if as a profession, we have been told to challenge our most able students in the top groups, and then dumb down the learning for our least able, we have nobody to blame but ourselves for widening the achievement gap.
The other common mistake that lots of teachers make with differentiation in mixed ability classes is that they pitch their lesson ‘down the middle’ and then try to differentiate for either their weaker students, to ensure they can keep up with the rest of the class, or provide extension work when their most able students finish the work early or find it too easy. Although, on paper, this may seem a fairly sensible approach to the non-educated eye, all it serves to do is to not really challenge or support anybody. Our least able students are given lots of resources to make the work easier and begin to rely on these ‘crutches’ throughout their learning journey. They crave the need for support sheets, easier tasks and help from another adult in the room; yet when they enter the examination hall in year 11 and find none of that support available, we wonder why they freeze and feel completely out of their depth. As for our most able students, they rarely feel challenged and work is usually well within their comfort zone. The ‘more of the same’ extension work that often comes their way as the teacher is caught short when they finish so early does nothing to move them on to the next level or mentally stretch them. Instead it merely serves to occupy them until the bell rings and rescues them from their educational boredom.
In the current educational landscape, GCSE reform is beginning to have its impact on many levels. With examination papers no longer going to be tiered and more and more emphasis on long terminal examinations being the ultimate judgement of whether students are deemed to be successful or not, we must look at how our historical approach to differentiation is setting too many students up to fail. The recent ‘Key Stage 3, The Wasted Years’ report from Ofsted highlights a distinct lack of challenge for too many students at Key Stage 3 and the dumbing down of subject content due to differentiation is, in part, one of the reasons behind this. We must therefore start to remove those ceilings and limitations that we place on so many students and start to open up the opportunity of educational success to everyone.
One way of achieving this is by teaching to the top and challenging every student in the group. This is an entirely different model to what most teaches have been trained to do and aims to support less able students to access the higher challenges of learning, rather than catering for the less able first and then thinking of ways to make it more difficult for the more able. This approach has a number of benefits for everyone.
Firstly your least able students are given the opportunity to access the entire syllabus. They are involved in all the activities that even your most able students take part in and are encouraged to work hard with constant modelling of what the top grades look like from the more able in the class. These students are also exposed to high standards of literacy, English language and questioning, just in the same way that we are told that students who arrive in the UK with no or little English should be placed in the top groups because it is here where they are surrounded by the best examples of the English language from which to copy and imitate.
Secondly, your students of average ability and those who are performing in line with national expectations, always have the opportunity to outperform their targets. They are constantly challenged and stretched by more aspirational targets and are motivated and driven to do even better, because they are told they can.
And finally, the most able students in any school are never truly motivated and engaged if they feel that work is too easy or beneath them. We all know what it feels like to face a challenge that seems like it is going to be out of our reach, but to finally get there and become successful by hard work and determination. Nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy.
So are your classroom strategies actually widening or closing the achievement gap between your least and most able? Are you giving your students opportunities to access the highest grades? Or are you putting a ceiling and limitation on what they can achieve? It may be time to re-think our entire approach to differentiation.

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