I once had a tutee who was a constant puzzle. In some areas, she struggled more than almost anyone else: algebra, extended writing, abstract thinking. She had to work harder than her peers just to stand still.
Yet at the same time, there were ways in which she was very able. She could just “see” the answers to spatial maths problems such as transformations and bearings – and was an amazing problem solver.
The more students who have come through my classroom door since, the more I have come to realise that those such as my tutee are not, in fact, the exception. Most students, when you really get to know their work, are brilliant at some things and really struggle with others.
I think about the student who never writes enough, but who has an outstanding eye for detail – or the student with the fantastic memory, but who struggles to make an argument her own.
When we really get to know students, we see that they have a unique blend of dispositions and talents, as well as things they find really challenging. Which makes differentiation done in the most common way – a top, middle and bottom task – highly problematic.
When we think about differentiation, we often don’t think as subtly as we should. We have the “able, gifted and talented” in mind – we plan for SEND. We think about high attainers, low attainers and everyone else in the middle.
We have got too much into the habit of thinking in terms of groups, not in terms of individuals.
So, why does this happen? Mary Simpson, professor emeritus of education at the University of Edinburgh, argues that teachers do not have enough concrete evidence of what level students are working at to personalise the learning for each child in the classroom.
What also happens, Simpson says, is that teachers are confusing the means and ends of differentiation. The end, our goal, is to create a learning environment where each student is undertaking something challenging for them, where they can grow in independence.
But we end up focusing on the means. We focus on how we go about differentiating, Often, Simpson says, what looks like great differentiation can happen at the expense of true differentiation. It does not matter, she says, that students are all doing different tasks. What matters is that they are doing the right task.
During teacher training, I was guilty of focusing on the means, not the ends of differentiation. I was very keen to “do” good differentiation and often turned up to lessons with different-levelled worksheets.
Did this look like differentiated, personalised learning? Yes. Did it take three times as long to resource? Yes. Did it give each student a task that was appropriate to them, to what they needed? Absolutely not.
I had not started from the individuals and what they could do. I had created groups – top, middle and bottom – three broad bands, in a group of 36. I was tacitly assuming that 12 students had identical needs. I was failing to see the richness and complexity of each student’s abilities and struggles.
How do we deliver great, differentiated lessons that don’t cater just to broad groups, but treat students as individuals? If three worksheets caused three times the work, how on earth can we manage the workload to cater to each individual?
One suggestion Simpson gives might be worth trying: working in partnership with students to identify their very best work and using that to set targets for improvement. To achieve this, teachers and students keep an ongoing personal portfolio of “best work”.
It works like this: now and again, a student might deem a piece of work worthy of the portfolio. They then discuss with their teacher why it is that this piece of work should be included. The teacher, assessing this work, can challenge them to think about why they think this work is good. Perhaps the student is wrong: perhaps it’s just well set-out or neat. The teacher can correct this assumption, then work with the student to set targets for what to work on next (Simpson, M (1997), “Developing differentiation practices: meeting the needs of pupils and teachers”, The Curriculum Journal, 8/1).
This sounds simple, but it has the potential to be really powerful. It is an approach that is completely individual to a specific student and their particular talents and struggles. It also gives both teachers and students what they need. For the teachers, it provides more concrete evidence of the level at which students are actually working, right now. For students, it provides an opportunity for individualised goals towards shared aims. It is truly a partnership.
The partnership model is not a no-work solution for differentiation – and it is not the only stratagem for differentiation that I’d like to use in my classroom. Giving different students different tasks or expectations because of their individual goals supports and underlines the approach. What makes it a special model for differentiation is that it places the individual – not broad groups – at the centre. Isn’t this, after all, what differentiation is meant to be all about?
Clare Jarmy is head of academic enrichment and Oxbridge, and head of religious studies and philosophy at Bedales School in Hampshire