World of difference

18th October 2013 at 01:00

One of the things I struggle with is differentiation. In the olden days, you could get away with "differentiation by outcome", which meant setting your students the same task and letting Darwinism take its course. The fact that some students rattled through their work in 10 seconds flat while others were still looking for a pen was presented as cogent evidence that you were meeting individuals' needs. It was a specious argument, like claiming you're a vegetarian because you order salad with your steak.

Thankfully this approach has fallen out of fashion. Like "preferred learning styles" or "thinking hats", it's seen as the pedagogical equivalent of wearing a doublet and hose.

The problem is that when it comes to tailoring students' learning effectively, we don't know where to start. Most of the latest strategies involve coloured cards, a range of tasks and access to an industrial laminator. Students are often asked to pick their own difficulty level. This certainly makes differentiation visible but I'm not sure it helps anyone. Given a choice, most children do the same thing as their mates. As do adults. Last week, thanks to a teacher training session, we had a "non-uniform" day. I tried on several outfits, then finally phoned a friend to ask what she was wearing.

The alternative approach to determining difficulty level is for the teacher to allocate the appropriate level of colour-coded challenge. This gives rise to pandemonium as students complain about the level they've been assigned.

So what's the solution? The teachers I admire the most differentiate as they go. They swoop around classrooms, dropping juicy worms into hungry mouths or nudging the stronger fledglings out of the nest. But these strategies are instinctive. They are also hard to document, and without a paper trail of evidence, it's impossible to prove you're meeting the government's exacting standard of "matching individual needs accurately".

Differentiation is one of our greatest challenges. Realistically, we stand more chance of picking the winning Lottery numbers than successfully matching the individual needs of 32 students in a mixed-ability class. It's time for common sense to prevail.

If teachers are in loco parentis then it should be acceptable to plonk the eldest in front of the television while we sit at the kitchen table helping the youngest with his maths. I have three children, and whoever is ill or has exams receives the lion's share of my attention. This has worked out fairly evenly over the years. And in the classroom it should be the same. You can differentiate for some of our students all of the time, or all of our students some of the time. But to do so for all of your students all of the time you'd need to come from Krypton and wear underpants over your tights.

Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham, England.

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