‘Why I came to distrust differentiation’

This teacher has decided that differentiating students based on prior attainment puts limits on student aspiration and teacher expectation

Julie Smith

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A well-meaning, but misguided alteration to our school lesson plan template just before an Ofsted inspection was the beginning of the end for my relationship with differentiation.

The blank new lesson plan arrived in my inbox, neatly divided into three columns, one for "less able students", one for "the majority of students" and one for "more able students". As the lesson planning pro forma was introduced in a meeting, I sat silently, seething.

Who were we to judge what students could achieve before a lesson had even begun? And what did "less able" and "more able" mean anyway?

Dangers of differentiation

Labelling and notions of fixed ability are rife throughout our education system. It isn’t unusual for teachers to be encouraged to divide students into groups according to their prior attainment, and to provide "appropriate" work for their level. This practice of within-class ability grouping – fairly common in primary schools, but also used in the secondary sector – implies that students’ ability is a fixed entity.

Perhaps instead we should be exploring the notion that, given appropriate learning opportunities, all students can achieve, even if they may not all progress at the same rate?

The issue of self-esteem also seems critical to me: surely some students feel less valued if they feel they have been labelled as "low-ability"? The requirement of some schools that their teachers write every lesson objective according to "all, most, and some" creates, I believe, an opportunity for both teachers and students to lower their expectations.

And if activities are presented as being purely based on performance, then they are seen by pupils as a test of ability rather than an opportunity to learn. To meet task demands and avoid failure, students may rely on surface-level learning strategies, avoid challenges and give up easily.

Mastery breeds motivation

In contrast, mastery goals emphasise the challenge of learning, stressing the importance of continuous improvement. This can prove particularly motivating for students and promote student autonomy if students choose the focus of their goals based on precise teacher feedback.

As many of us know, the importance of teacher feedback, verbal as well as written, has been documented by the Education Endowment Foundation, and cited by John Hattie in his meta-analyses Visible Learning. The EEF comments that teacher feedback has a high average impact on student attainment, reminding us that schools should mark less, but mark better; we should set aside time for students to consider and respond to marking, and careless mistakes should be marked differently to errors in understanding.

Similarly, Hattie points out that feedback is one of the most powerful influences in student achievement, although he also warns us that giving feedback is complicated, and given incorrectly, can actually have the opposite effect.

Despite these complexities though, differentiating for current, rather than prior, attainment removes the potential for low expectations that "all, most, some" lesson objectives can create.

Ditching differentiation

Fortunately, our school is now beginning to take the more challenging and inclusive approach of differentiating for current attainment, "teaching to the top" and responding to students during the lesson as the need arises.

I find that sometimes challenges are anticipated, and sometimes students need help in unexpected ways. Developing positive relationships with students, as well as a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, is so important, and this knowledge is far more in-depth and complex than simply basing our differentiation on a summative number filled in on a seating plan.

Julie Smith is director of learning at Wyedean School

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