It 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.