Differentiation Damages the Disadvantaged

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIt always sounds like a good idea. It is always framed in a way which casts its opponents as uncaring monsters. Who wouldn’t want to give the maximum attention to each child? Who wouldn’t want pupils’ experience of school to be tailored to their needs? If you oppose differentiation, you can easily be depicted as a child-hating authoritarian or someone who just doesn’t understand the kids.

But we need to oppose differentiation precisely because we want every child to receive the maximum attention and make the best progress possible. Differentiation is one element of the general push to make schooling individualised, or personalised. It sounds wonderful: a curriculum tailored to each individual, adapted perfectly to their needs and to their interests.

It sounds wonderful, but it is one of the most damaging myths in education. Here’s why.

Firstly, we just need to do the arithmetic. If a teacher is paying attention to one individual, they are not paying attention to the other twenty-nine individuals in the class. In a lesson of sixty minutes, each individual could receive two minutes of the teacher’s attention, and be largely ignored for the remaining fifty-eight. But with whole class instruction, the whole class is under the teacher’s guidance and is receiving instruction from the teacher for the whole sixty minutes. The whole class will therefore receive many times more minutes of attention than each child could if they were treated individually.

A well-designed sequence of whole class instruction anticipates the most likely questions and answers them for everybody. Compare this to wandering around the class and answering the same question a dozen times when individual pupils put their hands up. And while you are answering one query, much of the class is off task because they are waiting for you to get around to answering their question. Or they’ve just given up waiting and started chatting about football.

Then there is the question of curriculum. Personalised learning is inherently incoherent. If you want to teach a coherent curriculum, you need to proceed systematically through topics, building up knowledge cumulatively through the years. If everyone is doing their own personalised curriculum tailored to their individual interests and abilities, it is impossible to do this. A coherent curriculum helps everyone to make more progress in many ways. I’ll focus on one in this post: vocabulary learning.

Vocabulary is best learnt through domain immersion. When a whole class studies a topic over a sustained period of time, all pupils are repeatedly exposed to new words in meaningful contexts. Thus they begin to pick up the multiple connotations of words. This sense of a word’s various possible meanings cannot be acquired through being given a definition, whether in a vocabulary list or by looking the word up in a dictionary. Every English teacher has seen the hilarious results when pupils try to use a word which they have just looked up. They very rarely use it appropriately, because they do not have an understanding of its connotations and the ways it is actually used.

A curriculum taught to the whole class, in which they listen to the teacher explaining subject matter, read knowledge-rich material together and in which everyone engages in a well designed pattern of oral drill, whole class discussion, written tasks and low stakes tests, will be of huge benefit to the whole class, but it will be of most benefit to the most disadvantaged. They will come to the unit with a smaller vocabulary. Repeated exposure to new vocabulary in a meaningful context will mean that they catch up with their more advantaged peers. This can only happen when the whole class is taught a coherent curriculum. It can only happen when the damaging myths of personalised learning and differentiation have been dispelled.

Differentiation prevents teachers from teaching the whole class effectively. It therefore damages everyone, but the people it damages most are precisely those it is supposed to help. The pupils who are struggling the most are the ones who are most in need of coherent instruction, and coherent instruction is rendered impossible by individualised approaches to education.

UPDATE: This post has now been translated into French by Françoise Appy.

(Image from Wikimedia)

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12 thoughts on “Differentiation Damages the Disadvantaged

  1. So my question is, what about guided reading. That’s not true differentiation because you are working with groups, but at their reading level. I only have 6 copies of each book in the different levels, which means only 6 readers on that book. Often others in the class hear us reading and want to read that same book, which I find interesting. I also often think, “but this would be so good for all the kids.” I have to think about this more….

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  2. It’s worse than that. Differentiation as mandated a few years ago, and still practiced in many schools, doesn’t really help the high achievers either. The theory was always “do just enough of something that the pupil ‘gets it’, then move on to something new, or higher-order. Definitely don’t do More Of The Same.” Like a lot of edustuff, that sounds like a good idea when put like that, but it ignores the grey area between “can do it” and “can always do it right without really thinking”. I’m sure that my year 10s can work out the area of a triangle, when they have nothing else to think about. I’m also sure that they can’t easily use that idea in my science lessons, because they have been rushed to move on, and not over-practiced to real fluency.
    My hunch is that, if you start from the position that lots of repetition is a good thing, a lot of the pressure for multiple lessons in the same classroom fades away. There’s still a need to support more at the bottom, and challenge more at the top, but I don’t think the problem is differentiation by support or outcome is the problem.
    There is the issue that *eventually*, maths/physics/chemistry don’t lend themselves to having the whole attainment range in the same classroom, because there isn’t a shared conversation (interesting to the top end, meaningful to the bottom end) any more. That may be why teachers of maths and science are keener on setting than in other subjects. That doesn’t negate the fact that the shared conversation is a good thing, to be cherished as much as possible.

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  3. This is a ridiculous post. Your thesis eassentially states that whole class – chalk and talk is great for kids, whereas, teachers using a multitude of resources to support individualized instruction for diverse learners is a bad thing? You have no business writing on the topic of what’s good for kids.

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  4. Individualised or personalised instruction goes too far. But avoiding differentiation all together goes too far also. Too many studies suggest that there can be an average of 5 years difference between learners by Year 9.

    Surely scaffolding a task for some students that need support is beneficial. In my experience, there is always a group of students that all need more support so they get the same activity but scafolded. Changing the task for two groups is much more efficient than 28 different individualised versions.

    Also, what about the students who already thoroughly know the topic or concept? I don’t think letting them get disengaged while we stubbornly teach the whole class, the same thing, every time is great teaching. Why can’t they do the same topic or concept but at a more rigourous level?

    I like your passion, but there is no need to throw out the whole concept of differentiation all together even if some are pushing for personalised learning, which is in fact different.

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      • I’d still label that “extra-support” differentiation.
        That extra support may be in the form of slightly adjusting the product, process, content or learning environment. Usually with a group of students. Have you come across the work of Carol Tomlinson?

        I believe what you were attacking was what most agree is individualised or personalised learning. It’s differentiation on steroids. Definitely too much.

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  5. I am currently working as a research mentor with some expert Primary teachers who are in the second year of an intervention project in which they are using a Singapore approach to Maths. The scheme they are using is Maths…No Problem and it sets an ‘anchor problem’ for lessons and there is a period eg half an hour or so of exploratory work with all the children pursuing the same basic problem in as much depth as they can…after this is a plenary that allows the teacher to ‘teach’ (perhaps in a more socratic way than direct instruction but not so different really) and this is followed by practice with feedback. What is interesting is that being involved in the Maths scheme seems to be changing the way the teachers feel about what ‘School Maths’ is or could be, and about themselves as mathematicians. It is also changing their ideas and practice from in-class grouping to pupils working in random pairs and seems to be changing their own mathematical mindset (Boaler 2016) and their expectations of pupils. I am interested in the what actually happens during the exploratory work on the anchor problem…it is not pre-prepared differentiation by task and could be labelled as differentiation by support or by teacher questioning. It could be seen as personalised learning I guess although it is in mixed pairs of learners. I tend to agree with the broad thrust of this blog post, that differentiation by task in pursuit of personalised learning is probably not a fruitful way forward (especially if not supported by sophisticated resource package). In France I get the impression that such an approach would be see by Primary teachers as likely to reinforce social class differences (see Maroussia Raveaud’s 2005 paper on the hare and the tortoise BERJ 31 (4)). But I do not think this is a simple topic and crude rejection of differentiation does not seem sufficient…rejection of differentiation by carefully planned variety of tasks in pursuit of personalised learning is probably a reasonable on the basis that it creates impossible workload and anyway in practice tends to lead towards in-class grouping, and the research evidence is clear on grouping by prior attainment…it does not benefit children in top groups very much and it damages the progress of children in lower groups…(see for example Francis et al 2016 Cambridge Journal of Education or EEF Toolkit online ‘setting’ effect size is negative, quite an achievement for an intervention!).
    Pete Boyd

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  6. Pingback: Au sujet de la différenciation pédagogique | Contre-Réforme

  7. Pingback: Whole Class Instruction Enables Targeted Support | The Traditional Teacher

Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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