What do teachers think differentiation is?

In Why Knowledge Matters, ED Hirsch Jr sets out the case against differentiated instruction, saying, “the attempt to individualize the content of the language arts curriculum has been a quixotic idea that has put teachers under enormous pressure to achieve the impossible.” He explains further:

When a teacher is attending to the individual needs of one student  in a class of twenty, nineteen are not receiving the teacher’s attention. all sorts of techniques conspire to obscure that fact – group work, isolated seatwork on boring work sheets, and “independent study’ with choice of books from the leveled-reader bin.(p. 72)

In What If Everything You Know About Education Is Wrong? I referred to differentiation as a ‘dark art’ and claimed that, “Of all the impossible tasks expected of poor, overworked teachers, differentiation is one of the most troublesome.”

So what exactly is differentiation? Ideally, instruction is supposed to be customised for every student: everyone should receive a unique curriculum that meets their individual and unique needs. Teachers produce tailor-made assignments or provide the specific one-on-one help that enables every child to achieve their potential. If this sounds unrealistically onerous to you, then you’re not alone. Perhaps it sounds more reasonable to say that differentiation is a process of acknowledging that every child is different and treating them accordingly. Even this leads to overworked, overstretched teachers feeling guilty about not being able to do the impossible. Author and teacher Francis Gilbert says on the subject, “The whole thing is a duplicitous gimmick … In reality schools just do not have the resources, time or space in the curriculum to implement it.”[i] American education writer James Delisle is even more uncompromising: “Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students.”[ii] (p. 319-320)

Weighed against all this invective, we have the 2015 PISA test results which found that ‘adaptive instruction’ was one of the approaches most positively correlated with student performance. In fact, next to ensuring students are from wealthy backgrounds, adaptive instruction is the most positively correlated factor with achievement.

Students were asked to read the following statements and say whether they ‘never or almost never happened’, happened in ‘some lessons’, ‘many lessons’, or in ‘every or almost every lesson’:

  • The teacher adapts the lesson to my class’s needs and knowledge.
  • The teacher provides individual help when a student has difficulties understanding a topic or task.
  • The teacher changes the structure of a lesson on a topic most students find difficult to understand.

Only about 16% of students said their teachers did these things in every or most lessons, with about 30% reporting it as regular practice. Interestingly, out of all the countries that took part in PISA, the UK only places 15th for adaptive instruction, below UAE, Bulgaria and Costa Rica.

This, I think, is something that every teacher will probably view as intuitively correct, no matter their ideological stripe. I’ve certainly never encountered anyone who thinks lessons shouldn’t be adapted in response to students’ needs. But, is this the same as what most teachers understand differentiation to be? I didn’t think it was, so I conducted a quick Twitter poll:

Turns out I was dead wrong. This result indicates this really is what teachers understand as differentiation, which came as a pleasant surprise. It seems things have moved on from the dark days of ‘all, most, some’ learning objectives and the expectation that teachers should plan at least three different sets of resources for students of different abilities. The ‘index of adaptive instruction’, represents what I would call ‘good teaching’. Clearly a teacher who pitches lesson content above or beneath their classes’ needs and knowledge is unlikely to be effective. Likewise, the idea that a teacher might refuse to help a student who has difficulties understanding a task or topic seems extraordinary (Although I’ve seen, and even been advised to do, this in the name of developing students’ resilience!) The final point, changing the structure of a lesson if students aren’t getting it, should only need to happen if you pitched it wrongly in the first place, but a bull-headed tendency to plough on regardless is the sure sign of a novice with no back up strategy to hand.

To be clear, these things are entirely sensible and, I would have thought, not likely to add to teachers’ workload. All that’s required is that teachers are flexible and skilled enough to be able to veer off-piste to collect up confused students as and when required. So, death to the tyrannical old approaches to differentiation and viva adaptive instruction!

[i] Francis Gilbert quoted in Phil Beadle, How to Teach, p. 190.

[ii] James Delisle, Differentiation Doesn’t Work http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/01/07/differentiation-doesnt-work.html?qs=differentiation+doesn%27t+work.

17 Responses to What do teachers think differentiation is?

  1. David F says:

    Hi David—I think what you might be finding in your poll is the reaction that teachers have to terms that they believe are part of teaching vs. what the educationalists mean. I know that’s what you were trying to tease out, but I think there’s an inherent gut check on this—in fact, I do this with the term “student centered”–of course, my teaching is “student centered” in that I care about my students, though my pedagogical practices are more expclicit.

    WIth differentiation, yes, of course I don’t treat students as cookie-cutter objects and spend lots of time outside the classroom in one-on-one interactions and may stop and revis a lesson if students are not showing some udnerstanding. But, I would also not want some tech program collecting their data to provide each with a different “ehnanched” experience. I am also not a huge fan of “choice” in the classroom, especially with required readings.

    So, I think what you saw were teachers being grumpy about how terminology of our practice has been co-opted or twisted…the real question may be whether the OECD mislabelled these practices. I wish they used what in the Jesuit tradition we call “cura personalis”.

    • David Didau says:

      You may of course, be right. Obviously my poll proves nothing and the limited space for each option left little room for nuanced descriptions. The good news though is that the OECD’s measure of adaptive instruction doesn’t include choice or data collection.

  2. Rufus says:

    This reminds me of what I’ve heard Dylan Wiliam would rather AfL had been called: responsive teaching. This is, as you say, good teaching. And one of the biggest problems for teachers has been nonsensical tick-lists for observations, which often hinder responsive teaching.

  3. I visit Reception and Key Stage 1 classes to observe the teaching of reading and writing. I often see teachers struggling to implement complicated systems of differentiation, with as many as five groups doing different things at the same time in the same room. Usually, but not always, the result appears to be that for most of the time children work with little supervision, getting little benefit from what they are doing. If they can do it well without an adult, that usually means it is too easy. If they cannot do it well without an adult, it is unlikely to help them learn. Then, once or twice a week, they get attention while the others waste time.

    I promote whole class interactive instruction in reading and writing for up to half an hour every day, followed by activities which can be the same for every child, or very simply differentiated, possibly only by outcome. In addition I promote extra teaching for those children who are in danger of falling behind, and sometimes an extra or different task for children who can do more challenging work than the others. In England we are lucky enough to have teaching assistants with most classes at this stage. So then the teacher and teaching assistant can move around supervising and supporting all the children as necessary, or one of them can provide extra teaching for the children who struggle to keep up, while the other supervises and supports the rest.

    Another common way of organising classes that I come across is a form of streaming, where very young children are divided into groups for literacy according to ability, with an adult with each group. It can work. However, the usual result is a group of children that may be called a ‘catch-up group’, but is really a ‘get-further-and-further-behind group’. These children go into Key Stage 2 still unable to read. That is the main reason why I do not recommend this kind of grouping for Reception and Key Stage 1 children. Another is the complicated planning needed and the time wasted physically moving children to the right place.

    I noticed when I followed your quotes, David, that James Delisle appears to recommend streaming. He writes,

    “an admixture of students with varying abilities in one classroom causes even the most experienced and conscientious teachers to flinch, as they know the task of reaching each child is an impossible one”

    What do you, or others, think about streaming as a solution?

  4. I realise some readers may not know the English system I wrote about, so an explanation:

    Reception means 4 to 5 year olds.
    Key Stage 1 means 5 to 7 year olds.
    Key Stage 2 means 7 to 11 year olds.

  5. Hugh Nicklin says:

    In my GCSE History scheme (GCSE/TM, operating c 1984-7) i had four parallel tracks for pupils. We assigned them to one or other of the tracks, but they were told that they could always transfer if they felt that we had got them wrong. Hardly any of the candidates ever did. The key differences between the tracks were the lengths of the learning outcomes and the readability of the materials which formed the learning paths towards the outcomes. I wrote a model answer to an GCSE question based on the simplest level, and my colleague, an experienced examiner, said it would have achieved a Grade A. The scheme ran for two complete cycles, and not a single child dropped out or failed to get at least a G, which considering that there were ex remedial pupils in there, was quite pleasing.

    The Thatcher government banned the scheme either (a) because, as they said, it contained humorous elements designed to illustrate ‘Interpretations of History’ in an accessible way, or (b) (what they did not admit) because it operated a genuine criterion referenced marking system, which was anathema to the administrators.

  6. Peter says:

    Thank you for this post, very sensible and much appreciated!

  7. Michael Pye says:

    Does it matter what I think differentiation is or is the opinion of the person judging me more important? The trouble with those other options is that they are still zombie ideas. They are expected even if they are no longer conceptually sound.

    In order to move past the idea of differentiation we need to be able to show that a didactic teacher led approach, to a group in rows following prescribed examples with constant exemplars and clear feedback containing no group work, individual targets or change of activity can be an example of outstanding teaching. (Not sure about my grammar in that last sentence feel free to correct me)

    It is important to note that the above example is not my prescription for how we should all teach but rather an extreme example of an approach that runs counter to many peoples expectations of good teaching but which is supported by high quality evidence and is likely effective.

    When we have a situation where lessons like the above are only criticized on specific flaws in implementation rather then general flaws of principle then we have really moved on.

    The days of differentiation as all powerful seem to have gone but it’s consequences and ideas will linger on for a while yet.

    Like David F I am not sure that these twitter polls really add much to your arguments. You can work out the correct answer just by looking at the options. I notice Old Andrew likes using them a lot I just don;t think they prove much and are easy to criticise.

    Alternatively you could try adding a more rigorous alternative like

    differentiation is adapting teaching to individual students needs

    vs adapting teaching to the needs of your students

    It is the focus on the concepts of individuality and maximizing an individual students learning rather then efficiency via opportunity cost and maximised benefit for the group that is at the heart of the differentiation argument.

    I worry that like learning styles people have just redefined the term to mean generic good teaching in order to tone down it’s excesses rather then consider head on the ideas that led to it. I believe Professor Coe had a pithy term for this but I can’t recall it.

    Bit worried I may have gone of on a tangent here as it is the first day back and I am seriously sleep deprived. If so apologies in advance.

  8. chestnut says:

    I don’t think the dark days of all, most or some have finished neither has the requirement to produce different resources. Plenty of ofsted inspections still complain that the more able are not stretched enough – SLT interpret that as different work is required and will look for it in work/book scrutinies. Death by differentiation and marking workload still alive and kicking!

  9. Greg Ashman says:

    Adaptive instruction actually seems to be a feature of Rosenshine’s definition of explicit instruction.

  10. Those ten principles are relevant to teaching four and five year olds to read too.

  11. anthony evans says:

    Hi David
    I am from the 3 different pieces of work and 3 outcomes generation. This shaped my lesson and my view of the word differentiate. Before the advent of computers I’d spent nights making three different types of Maths worksheet for my Year 1 children using stamps and harder or easier numbers. It kept everyone busy and if you finished sheet A, then and only then could you go onto try sheet B. thankfully I have seen the light.

    However, whenever I hear differentiation being derided or questioned i get a little nervous as i think about children with SEND. I looked again at the SEND code and early on it mentions the importance of differentiated teaching. However there is no attempt to define what this means or looks like :We could comfortably argue that the author of the code is referring to adapted instruction

    The SEND Code of Practice states early in section 1:

    High quality teaching that is differentiated and personalised will meet the individual needs of the majority of children and young people.

    Some children and young people need educational provision that is additional to or different from this.

    This is special educational provision under Section 21 of the Children and Families Act 2014.

    Schools and colleges must use their best endeavours to ensure that such provision is made for those who need it. Special educational provision is underpinned by high quality teaching and is compromised by anything less

    There are children in some of our classes with significant need who will need “additional or different teaching”. We cant get away from that. There are children in some classes whose needs are so great that are not able to access the lesson. Worryingly it can often fall to a TA to be the teacher of that child. I always argue that these children are in need of individualized curricular with relevant lessons and content designed by teachers and advisory services.

    Equally there are many who are labelled as SEND, or “red group” or “my lowers” who have low ceilings set for them. They are given simpler tasks/ sheets or work with the TA. This can mean that they fall further behind because they are constantly protected from the stuff that is too hard. Their diet is lite.

    The grail is high expectations and where children can choose the level of challenge and where they feel slightly uncomfortable as opposed to comfortable with the safe tasks or questions.

  12. […] David Didau recently pointed out, on some levels, adapting teaching to the needs of individuals seems to be just ordinary good […]

  13. Michael Pye says:

    I recognize that world but don’t worry about the challenges to the term differentiation.
    We either need to convince people it means something different then multiple-resources or we need to win the branding war and call adaptive instruction the more practical and reasonable accommodations that should be made.

    The people who would abuse this already are by handing out trivial tasks that will never develop anything.

    P.s I have used your A, B , C approach, also used a choose your own level of challenge before moving on method. Unfortunately I still find myself occasionally using this but only when I end up teaching ideas that I lack expertise or support in. (British Values anyone)
    Sure as hell don’t use it for maths anymore.

  14. jackierossa says:

    Very interesting David. I often ask the question ‘are we differentiating, or are we discriminating?’ The two thngs can sometimes look the same, Responsive teaching…now that I like, as it recognises the messy business of learning!

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