The Cult of Differentiation

Some of the most persistent zombie ideas in education are related to the cult of differentiation. This is the firmly held belief, in spite of any logic or evidence, that a class teacher’s time is best spent producing different lessons attuned to the individual needs of his pupils.

Around 90% of teachers still believe, for example, that learning styles exist, and that pupils are taught most effectively in their preferred learning style. This defies logic, because instruction is always best attuned to the material being taught. If it’s a practical skill, learners need modelling and hands on practice. If it’s the skill of writing, pupils need to have the rules explained to them clearly and repeatedly practise them. If it is geographical information, they need to look at maps and learn to interpret them by memorising mapping conventions and repeatedly applying them. A visual learner will not learn how to write by looking at pictures. An auditory learner will not learn about the geology of Britain best by listening to a description of a map.

The fact is, the best method works best for everyone. A teacher’s precious time is best used working out the best method for the material and using it to teach the whole class. The opportunity cost of producing differentiated material is obscene, and it is futile, because however different pupils are, they will still learn best from the method of instruction which is best attuned to the material being taught.

And yet the learning styles nonsense continues, because if we reject it, we stand accused of failing to treat pupils as individuals. The moral cudgels come out and the traditional teacher is seen as a stern, inflexible and inhuman instructor who doesn’t get down with the kids and see things from their perspective. This is really the heart of the cult of differentiation. Teachers are supposed to sacrifice the best interests of their pupils on the altar of rampant individualism, in which everything must be different for every person: ‘personalised learning’.

But a teacher who refuses to differentiate is not claiming that his pupils are identical. He is simply working on the basis of the well evidenced fact that cognitively, we are far more similar than we are different. Morally, personally we are doubtless unique. We vary too, of course, in intelligence levels, so that some will have to put forth more effort to attain the same levels of knowledge. But we do our pupils no favours when we excuse them that effort and encourage them to think that they have some unique excuse for not trying.

As a matter of fact, well organised and efficient whole class instruction allows far more opportunities for good quality individual attention. It creates a well ordered environment in which expectations are clear and work is well defined. Thus it makes it far easier for the teacher to spot anyone who is struggling, and offer a few words of extra explanation. This quiet, focused, and unfussy intervention is what caring teachers have always done. Now it is much harder, as the madness and chaos of individualised learning continues to make many teachers’ lives next to impossible.

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9 thoughts on “The Cult of Differentiation

  1. Personalized learning has become the mantra of our brand new, sparkling curriculum here in British Columbia, Canada. The BCEd plan is all about 21st century learning, and how our students need tailored fit curricula to suit their passions! Hogwash.

    Along with this most thoughtful and accurate post, I would also like to pass along Marc Lapoointe’s most excellent video on the pitfalls of personalized learning http://stuffforparents.com/video/personalized-learning/. Marc is an educator/blogger/author who is spreading the message about the myths of 21st century learning. Some of us here are trying to stop this madness from spreading, however most days we know we are paddling upstream without a paddle. Blog entries like these help us in our fight to pursue common sense learning.

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  2. Thanks for the interesting post. Around here (Seattle) when we see the term differentiated learning its almost never about learning styles and much more focused on those who are struggling and also advanced learners. You spoke to the first group but I’m curious what your thoughts are on the second. I tend to see differentiation as not the right answer for advanced students either given the immense difficulties required to implement it.

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    • The reality is, you have to teach the whole class, otherwise you are neglecting the majority of your pupils. If you could have an advanced class, then you could teach that class more advanced material.

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  3. Agree with you here.

    What also bamboozles me is how nobody seems to realise that within any class there will always be a group of lower achievers relative to the others. It is this group of people who always get the Ofsted-ready scaffolds or ‘kinaesthetic learning’; their entire primary school experience consists of sitting with the TA, never writing anything of any consequence, having their picture taken whilst ‘doing’ their learning and sticking said pictures into their books as evidence. When do these people actually get to write in the same way as the other children in their class? Never! They will always get a worksheet to fill in (especially in a lesson that is being observed and graded). Their first 7 years of education will be all about being fed the message that they do not need to work as hard, or cannot cope with difficult work in the same way as other children. And what was their crime? To just be slightly lower achievers compared to the rest, but still within a band or spectrum of ‘normal’.

    Madness.

    Even more madness; I am required to perpetuate this.

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  4. Quirky Teacher, I so agree with your comments. At my school we have to differentiate each maths and English lesson 3 ways. Yes, total madness.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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