). They observed Chinese and English maths lessons and found that the Chinese students performed better than their English peers in maths assessments both at the start and the end of the study. They also found that whole-class, interactive teaching was being used 72 per cent of the time in the China and only 24 per cent of the time in England. Differentiated instruction necessarily turns us away from whole-class interactive teaching and yet this may well be one of our most effective teaching strategies.
And what about expectations? Categorising a child and placing her in a particular group within a class may lead to lower teacher or student expectations. Perhaps all children could succeed on the one task if given the chance.
A study of primary teachers in the US found that students placed in the lowest in-class groups spent more time "involved in non-instructional activities and [were] less likely to be asked critical comprehension questions".
This is the same issue that affects the most common alternative to differentiation: placing students into ability groups or sets. The consensus is that this approach may be beneficial for some high-performing students but it is often detrimental to those in the lowest groups. How much this is a result of the setting or the tendency to assign less effective teachers to lower groups is unclear. An interesting study by King's College London intends to test this idea over the next few years.
So what should we conclude? There is no overwhelming evidence to support efforts to teach multiple lessons within one class. Given the work that differentiation involves, I suggest it is probably better to look for other ways to cater to different abilities; a kind of "differentiation-lite", perhaps.
This could involve a large component of whole-class teaching but with some students who already understand the concepts working independently as the same ideas are reinforced with others. I find targeted verbal questioning useful too, but it's better if it is planned in advance. And I often give students the opportunity to come to the front and explain the concepts that they have grasped well - it provides an alternative explanation to mine and I am there to clarify any misconceptions.
In short, we need a more pragmatic approach, one that recognises student difference without throwing the whole-class baby out with the bathwater.
Greg Ashman is a teacher at Ballarat Clarendon College in Victoria, Australia. Find him on Twitter @greg_ashman
Ryan, J and Williams, J (2007) Children's Mathematics 4-15: Learning from errors and misconceptions (Open University Press)
Tomlinson, C A, Brighton, C, Hertberg, H et al (2003) "Differentiating instruction in response to student readiness, interest, and learning profile in academically diverse classrooms: a review of literature", Journal for the Education of the Gifted 272-3: 119-145
Chorzempa, B F and Graham, S (2006) "Primary-grade teachers' use of within-class ability grouping in reading", Journal of Educational Psychology 983: 529-541