Why we need to ditch differentiation

Setting children different levels of work according to their ability places a glass ceiling on their progress, argues this teacher

Mixed-ability classes, differentiation in classrooms, differentiation

It’s been five years since I finished teacher training. And the word “differentiation” still haunts me.

Seminars and lectures would talk about differentiation. Within our teaching placements, we were expected to differentiate. However, this differentiation was hinged on children doing “different” things, usually organised by providing a range of different tasks (three or more) to suit the needs of different groups of children.

Many of us filled out planning sheets, deciding the tasks for the “lower-, middle- and upper-attaining” children. We determined what “all, some or most” of the children will do that lesson.

It led to some children imposing restrictions on themselves: they only did a certain amount of work as they knew that was all that was expected of them.

In a 1996 The Simpsons episode, “You Only Move Twice”, Bart is having difficulty in his new class. Instantly, he is removed to a remedial class and quite perceptively states: “Let me get this straight. We’re behind the rest of our class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are?”

A crazy idea, possibly, but nonetheless, something that occurs in our classes? Quite often, the so-called lowest attaining children in the class will focus on easier skills, basic knowledge and fluency. Alternatively, the higher attaining children will be challenged to take on more difficult knowledge, reasoning, problems and skills. Although not the case in all classrooms, this is certainly evident in many lessons.

By our own admission, we are having low expectations and, therefore, should not be surprised when the pupils who are furthest behind get even further behind. Those at the top of the class steam ahead, resulting in a widening of the gap between the top and the bottom: ironically, what we are setting out to avoid by differentiating in the first place.

I often think if something is taught well enough, and children have time to properly practise a concept, then they can be successful in that task. Often, breaking new ideas down into steps and having scaffolds in place for children to practise will aid achievement. As frequently as I can, I try to provide one main task and have challenges (for all children) built within that task to extend learning.

I have always found the teaching of inverted commas interesting to watch. A difficult concept involving many parts. In just one lesson, I have seen some children not use the inverted commas, simply putting the speech part in speech bubbles. Some children would have put the speech in inverted commas and others would have used the correct punctuation, too.

It can’t be as simple as saying “I expect all of you to do this, good luck!” However, when we have low expectations of children and we are planning activities like this, then, of course, gaps will widen.

According to the “Pygmalion” effect (Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1963), teachers’ expectations affect students’ academic progress. Having high expectations of all pupils is essential. Rosenthal and Jacobson stated: “When teachers expected that certain children would show greater intellectual development, those children did show greater intellectual development.”

And yet, when we are planning for several different levels of work, and we segregate children into “all, most and some”, are we placing high expectations on all learners? Or are we imposing a glass ceiling on the children in our classes?

Going forward, we should be looking to offer varying means of support rather than low expectations and a range of different tasks. Furthermore, it is worth noting that some children do need to spend longer on learning and recalling new concepts. Having starters in lessons that involve lots of recall and low-stakes quizzing is a great way to give pupils further practice and for teachers to work with different groups of pupils to support and re-teach ideas.

The writer is a secondary teacher in the UK 

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