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The Myth of Differentiation

What’s wrong with differentiation?

My problem with differentiation does not lie with the theory, but instead with how it is employed in the classroom. I view the traditional 3-way task differentiation as a myth. I’ve always thought to myself; what really is the point of it? What is the justification for differentiating 3 ways every lesson? Does it really meet the needs of the learners in your class? Or is it just another tick-box exercise to keep senior leadership and OFSTED happy?

Let me say from the outset, I understand and wholeheartedly support the need for challenging all pupils and stretching them – I am not abandoning this by abandoning 3-way task differentiation. In my opinion, if you constantly set a child ‘lower’ work, then you will only get them producing a ‘lower’ outcome. It is paramount that you have high expectations in every aspect of a child’s educational life, whether it is with behaviour, uniform, presentation, effort and especially in the tasks you set them. Our job as a teacher is to ensure that every child in our class has made progress by the time they leave us at the end of the school year. We do this best through high expectations and considering the importance of the long-term goal over the short-term outcome.

After my first year in year 6, I started to ask myself (mostly because of workload): do I need to differentiate? All the children in my class were sitting the same tests with ultimately the same expectations – to reach the expected standard. What benefit was there to differentiating? And most importantly, the question that inspires everything I do in teaching and leadership: does it benefit the children? Because if it doesn’t, then I simply don’t do it.

 

What did I change?

So, in my 2nd year in Year 6, I started to adapt my differentiation – it was only ever differentiated one or two ways. The working towards children were doing the same work as the expected children, but it was produced in a way that made it more accessible. This could mean me spending slightly longer with them explaining the task, completing a part of it together, giving them a written breakdown of instructions within their task or even giving them the task with more friendly language. The greater depth children would work completely independently on a similar or identical task, but would not have any scaffolding and would be expected to provide clear and concise justifications for their answers using vocabulary they had been taught. The push for the greater depth children was always to show their depth of understanding, because, after all, that is what differentiates them from the other children in the class. Whenever I differentiated two ways, the work for the greater depth children would always be based around them exploring their ideas, justifying their thoughts and embracing a metacognitive stance by getting them to reflect on how they know what they know.

Challenge became my focus. Only thinking about challenge in 3-way tasks was abandoned and I started to design every input to challenge all children through discussion and shared ideas. Challenge wasn’t an afterthought; it was the starting point of every lesson. I would plan my lessons based on the challenge I wanted my greater depth children to have and then make it accessible for everyone from the top downwards. Differentiation was still evident, but instead through level of support, use of pace and how I assessed their understanding. 3-way task differentiation disappeared from my classroom.

 

What impact did it have?

  • Misconceptions became much easier to anticipate and therefore much easier to discuss and rectify – because they all had the same task, all children could now regularly engage in whole-class discussions about misconceptions and mistakes throughout the lesson, not just during the input.
  • Children were able to share ideas with each other more regularly – this allowed me to guide discussion with the use of vocabulary and stretching children with increasingly challenging questioning.
  • Mini plenaries and plenaries became more accessible for everyone – I could go over answers to the work they had done, I could push them further with non-routine and unfamiliar questions linked to the learning and I could challenge them to define vocabulary we had learnt and use it in context.
  • I was able to spend more time planning the lessons, which in turn led to increased progress. I had more time to build in more challenge into my inputs, more time to make the task itself more challenging and more time to make the tasks accessible and scaffolded enough for all children. I found I had more time to do everything, as my workload was reduced significantly.
  • The sequence of learning became more clearly established – therefore, children accessed prior learning more frequently and on an increasingly independent basis. This was mostly apparent in lessons that I only taught once a week, such as history, geography and science. I would merely mention the learning objective and all hands would go up able to provide comment on their previous learning. Suddenly, children felt like knowledge was shared and built together, which was particularly encouraging for the children who were less confident than others. This was an important step in cementing a knowledge-based curriculum in our classroom.
  • The challenge and difficulty in my questioning increased – not just in class, but in my marking. All children were now receiving more detailed and specific questioning that stretched their understanding. The greater depth children would often receive a question that required a level of inference, prediction, understanding of causality or a link between concepts. Now, I was able to include these questions in the books of all the children. If they ever got stuck or struggled to answer them, it became another class discussion where ideas could be shared and critiqued.
  • Confidence skyrocketed. Children no longer had to worry why the orange group was doing that work and the red group was doing this work. They looked forward to discussing it and seeing each other’s ideas.
  • On a more personal level, workload was reduced significantly. Marking became far quicker and easier. I was enjoying planning a lot more because my first thought was always this: how I can make this lesson more challenging?

 

Roll on July. The SATs results were in. Interestingly, this is where the impact was most evident. Progress among all children was quite good, but it was especially significant in the working towards children. Our percentages were all significantly above national average. Our average scores in all the tests were all above national average. As to be expected, a couple children did not make expected progress in some tests, but some made such significant progress that as a class altogether they did phenomenally well. Naturally, SATs are not the be-all-end-all of education, I have just included this to demonstrate the success I believe can be attributed to adapting differentiation. This year, I’ve dropped down to almost exclusively one task differentiation in all subjects.

By now, I imagine you have wondered how I was allowed to pursue this approach. I am very fortunate to have a supportive SLT, who give me a lot of autonomy to explore my own teaching style and try out new things. Try to keep an open dialogue with your SLT about how you can go about improving teaching in your school and what new ideas you can implement. This is why I joined Edutwitter and am writing this blogpost.

 

As usual, any questions or comments then please do tweet me @_mrmorgs – I would love to hear any thoughts you may have with this approach and engage in a discussion about it!

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