Helen Amass

Differentiation: the dos and don'ts

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With schools now focused on bridging lockdown learning gaps, differentiation is arguably more important than ever before. But many teachers aren’t using it properly and see it as a source of extra workload, expert Carol Ann Tomlinson tells Helen Amass. Rather than simply giving different groups different tasks, she says, it is all about putting the student above the subject and giving them true ownership over their learning

Education research and pedagogy: Why are teachers getting differentiation wrong in schools?

As schools get to grips with their students’ varying experiences of lockdown and the resulting gaps in learning, differentiation – a means of meeting students’ individual needs – is likely to be more of a focus than ever. But how much do we really know about making it work in practice?

Carol Ann Tomlinson is the William Clay Parrish Jr professor emeritus at the University of Virginia’s School of Education and a world-renowned expert in this area. During the World Education Summit last month, she spoke to Helen Amass about the misconceptions that exist and how teachers can overcome them to differentiate effectively.

Differentiation has been around in education for decades now and it’s a concept that every teacher in the UK will probably be familiar with. So why is it still such a big topic of conversation?

We’re still talking about it because – despite the fact that when we look into our classes, we see the variety and we understand that students are coming at learning in very different ways – we still broadly tend to teach in a classroom as though all students are pretty much alike. But that’s not really the case, of course. Children do differ as learners.

We’ve known for a long time that in order to learn, each student needs to be challenged, and each student needs success. But that challenge and success can’t look the same for everybody all of the time.

Do you think the reason differentiation isn’t happening everywhere is because it is something that we find hard to define?

I’m not sure we struggle to define it; I think we struggle to understand what it means in terms of the implications of it. So if I were to say, just really simply, that differentiation is using our very best teaching skills to enable each learner to go as far and as fast as he or she can, you’d understand that definition. But that one statement calls on us to do so many things – and I think it’s common for us, when anything is complex, to sort of skim off the surface and settle for that definition.

Has that simplification led to teachers misunderstanding what differentiated instruction really is?

There are certainly misconceptions. Many people still tend to think that differentiation is having three groups in a class, and just giving different groups different things.

I think that’s because teachers seem to be incessantly hungry for an instructional strategy and much less inclined to go deeper than that, and to understand why we’re doing something or what the origins of it are.

For instance, tiering is seen as a differentiation strategy. And what tiering does is divide students into those who are “normal” or “struggling” or “advanced”, often based on a particular assessment piece that you had. At some points, it’s handy to do that, but that’s a very small fraction of what differentiation should be.

What other misconceptions are common?

Another misconception is that to differentiate instruction is to dumb down work for children who aren’t achieving well. And the truth is that we should be doing what I call “teaching up” – planning first for the most advanced children in the classroom, and then saying, “How do I build in scaffolding to enable other pupils to access this, too?”

Differentiation ought to lift us up and never put us down, and I think not too many teachers have had the opportunity and the support to even encounter that notion, let alone understand it deeply.

That isn’t the fault of teachers, though. In many classrooms, the pressure is on you to prepare children for tests. It becomes, “This is all we’re going to do today and we can’t waste time on anything that isn’t just moving down that straight road.”

What do teachers need to know about differentiation that they haven’t already had the chance to learn?

Several years ago, when I was teaching at the University of Virginia, a student said to me that he thought he was missing something about differentiation.

I told him to go away and write down what he thought differentiation was so that we could discuss that. I thought he would write a paragraph, but what he came back with was more like a dissertation.

He explained that he saw differentiation as a sequence of “common-sense decisions” made by teachers who have “student-first orientation”. I thought this was a great way to describe it.

What does that student-first approach look like in practice?

What my student meant by this was that there are teachers who teach subjects first and teachers who teach students first and, in his view, the latter were more likely to differentiate well.

The first thing these teachers do is create an environment that feels really supportive to all kinds of students, so that each student feels welcomed and encouraged and valued.

To do that, we have to accomplish three things. The teacher has to have a growth mindset to make sure that the students come to have a growth mindset; we have to make sure that student-teacher connections are strong and get stronger all the time, that we are building a community of learners; and we have to have a really powerful curriculum that involves three learning goals, which I call KUDs – framing the goals to state what knowledge the children need to have, what understanding they require and what skills they need (what they have to be able to “do”).

That curriculum also needs to be designed to really capture the minds and imaginations of pupils, and we have to focus not primarily on their retention of a lot of information but on making sure they really understand what they are being taught.

The next “common-sense” step is to use formative assessment to make sure they always know where students are in relation to the curriculum. When you do this, you find out really quickly that the class will be all over the place, no matter how terrific you were in teaching that day – and then what else would you do but differentiate? Because your only other choice is to say, “Well, you’re way behind and you’re way ahead, but that’s tough – I’m just gonna keep teaching the same way.”

And finally, the last common-sense step is recognising that you can’t do any of these things unless you have learned to be a really effective leader of students, and then enlist their help to be your partners in establishing and executing flexible classroom routines.

That just sounds like a description of good teaching…

In a way, that’s exactly what it is. Differentiation, as I understand it, is a model based on our very best current understanding of quality teaching and learning.

But if differentiation is just drawn from what we know about quality teaching and learning, why isn’t every teacher doing it?

The problem is that this is at odds with the way most of us were taught ourselves, and how we’re comfortable teaching.

Most of us were taught as if learning is one long, straight road. What we’d like to do is go down that road straightaway from the first day of the year to the last, so that we can say we got all the way through the curriculum. But differentiation asks us to deviate from that road.

And that’s the hard part: if we want to help students be more successful, we have to make some major shifts in the way we teach. Differentiation itself is not difficult. What’s hard is giving up things that are comfortable for us.

And does that mean putting the student first, rather than subject content?

Yes. At its core, differentiation is an instructional model whereby we ask teachers to put the student at the centre of all decision making – not a syllabus, not a test, not a mandate, but the student. It’s using those key elements I listed above with the aim of maximising the capacity of each student.

Differentiation asks us to teach these students and not just the students. It’s amazing to me how many of us, myself included, talk about “the students” – “the students understood this so well today”, “the students’ projects were not as good as I’d like them to be”. We generalise, which leads us, again, to teaching them as a batch, rather than individuals, and differentiation says that’s not good enough. Because all children bring uniqueness, and needs and strengths and dreams that will affect their learning. And it’s our job to respond to those.

But how do teachers reconcile that with the need to get through the curriculum and prepare students for exams?

To go back to my road metaphor, think of it like this: our classrooms might need to have highways running through them, but those highways should have exit ramps planned into them.

The highway is what people have to learn and do in common as a group. During those times everyone or nearly everyone will stay on the highway. But we also need to take into account the many times in a unit where students are likely to encounter difficulties or get ahead, or need to explore an interest-based aspect of the topic. Those are the exit ramps and without them, we can’t differentiate.

As you plan, you need to first think about what everyone must do in common, and then think about points where your students are likely to encounter difficulties or need additional challenge.

Once teachers get used to planning exit ramps in, they will get better at creating spur-of-the-moment exit ramps as well.

This is the point at which many teachers would probably bring up workload. What if you simply don’t feel that you have time to plan like that?

Nobody can ask us to do all this stuff next week. It’s a step-by-step thing. Our problem is that many of us have not committed to one step at a time. So we keep thinking, “I can’t do that because it’s too hard; I can’t do that because I’m too busy.”

But once you get the drift of it, I don’t think the workload is harder: I think it’s different. When you’re differentiating instruction, you probably have more of a need to be thoughtful as you prepare lessons.

So, yes, the preparation is more labour intensive. But in class, it feels a lot less heavy, because the children are working with each other, because you’re teaching them to be more in charge of themselves, because you realise that it doesn’t serve a whole lot of purpose for you to be standing at the front doing most of the work, most of the time.

Can you give an example of what planning for differentiation might look like? It’s not just about creating several versions of the same worksheet, is it?

No. Let me give you the example of a teacher who I saw recently, who, as many teachers have been this year, was teaching online and not feeling great about it. She didn’t feel that teaching them all together was working.

So, she decided to try a different approach. She went to her class and said, “Here’s what you need to work with, and I want to give you four choices of how to do that. You can be in an open work room with your mic on, so that you can chat with your peers who also want to chat about ideas and uncertainties. Or you can work in a quiet room where the mics won’t be on but the chat box will be open, so you can collaborate when you want to, but there won’t be chatter. Or you can work in an independent room, because you feel it’s going be better for you if you do this on your own. Or if you want to get support from me, then you can come to the teacher support room. I’ll be there some of the time, but I’ll also be checking in on the other rooms.”

At the end of the day, she felt totally better about how the class had gone, and the students did as well.

Do you think that remote learning during the pandemic has changed how we think about differentiation?

It varies from country to country, of course, but the themes of the pandemic are often the same. Here in the US, much of the conversation is related to inequity. Children who don’t have enough food on the table, big surprise, also don’t have [the] internet.

One point of optimism I have is that I believe I have seen more conversations happening about differentiation in relation to how teachers have been teaching online than I have in classrooms, because online you can’t pretend that you can stand there and talk to them and it’s all going to be fine. It becomes much more evident that you’ve got students who not only are confused and frustrated but also they’ve stopped signing on every day.

And so you begin to think, “I have to do something different to help this be better for all students.” So I think it’s possible that some forays that teachers made into differentiation online will carry back to the classroom.

Do you think we might also see positive changes across the education sector?

The assertion that I keep hearing now is that … we can’t go back to the way things were. We have to invent something better. I want to believe that we will … but the pressures are so huge to cover curriculum and to make those test scores go up that in many places, there’s a sense of “let us get back and do what we’ve always done again because that’s what we’re comfortable with”.

So, for me, the jury’s out on that. I don’t really know. But diversity will be there and when we go back, it’s highly likely that students who have less opportunity in their lives will come back to school worse off for the gap than students whose parents have the opportunity to enrich them at home all the time. And so that equity thing will be in our face again. And it should be.

What’s the best way to move forward with differentiation, particularly as we recover from the pandemic?

One thing that I believe many of us would accept, as a principle, is that students of any age are human beings, and when they’re young, they’re vulnerable.

One of the biggest steps we can take is to say to ourselves, “I have to see these kids as individual human beings. I’m not going to plough down the road today without taking a minute to talk to them. I’m going to try as hard as I can to figure my students out, so that I can make a comment that’s personal to them, which suggests that I see them and care for them.”

I think the more we are able to put ourselves in a position to see the humanity of the people we teach, the better job we’ll do of teaching them. You need to understand the entry points of your children, and you need to understand what kinds of school experiences they’ve had and you need to know what interests and dreams they have so you can connect things with that.

It’s easy to say, “Look, I have 150 of them. Not doable. End of story.” But it is minute-by-minute walking around the room, leaning down and saying something to somebody, being at the door when they come in the room.

I think our sense of teaching being us driving down a road, where we have to cover everything that we’re supposed to cover, is one of the reasons we get so tired. If we had the pleasure of coming together with a group of young people that we’re learning about, and learning about ourselves in the process, it would feel like a very different job. That’s where differentiation is trying to take us.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is the William Clay Parrish Jr professor emeritus at the University of Virginia’s School of Education. She was speaking to Helen Amass, interim commissioning editor at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 16 April 2021 issue under the headline “The dos and don’ts of differentiation”

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