- Children never come with a pre-determined differentiated grouping.
- Are we selling children short by expecting a particular outcome?
- In this article by Matt Roberts first published in the August 2014 Edition of UKEdMagazine, considerations are shared on the legitimacy of differentiation.
- How teachers should implement strategies that help the learning of all children, without holding back progress?
Differentiation is expected in today’s Initial Teacher Training. Simply you are not an ‘Outstanding’ teacher unless you differentiate learning in the classroom. You’re not even a ‘Good’ teacher unless you begin to deploy differentiation techniques. On top of that, differentiation is cited as a necessary skill in the most recent Teachers’ Standards in England.
However, could it be questioned that there are times when differentiation is not appropriate? When we set differentiated tasks we are making assumptions from evidence, past experience of the child’s engagement with similar tasks and their conceived ability in the learning area. Despite this careful analysis by teachers, is this expectation always correct?
I suppose my biggest doubts around the focus on differentiation had arisen from my supply teaching. Obviously, as a supply teacher, I do not have access to data on children’s ‘ability’ in subject areas or even experience of working with them so I can differentiate accordingly. So, am I expected to have differentiation in my lessons if I’m called upon to provide my own learning experiences? Some would argue yes. Some would argue that it is counter-productive and impossible. It would require dozens of versions of the activity in order to cover for every possible need in the classroom.
Now, it is possible I’m being a little pedantic – no, obviously I cannot plan for every eventuality, but a three or five-tiered differentiated task would be possible. In any of my supply posts, has it been necessary? No. In every class I have gone in every child has been included and involved. Admittedly the occasional child has struggled, but with the assistance they have, according to the evidence, made progress toward the learning objective. Each child has been able to participate and learn without personalised learning as I did not know their personal learning needs.
It has not only been my experience whilst supply teaching that has raised my doubts about the necessity of differentiation, but also an experience in my final placement. I was teaching a Year 3/4 ‘lower ability’ maths class and had taught them a series of lessons on metres. It was time for me to try and convert that knowledge to kilometres, including that 1000m=1km. I decided, from a certain group’s previous assessments on metres, that it would be necessary to initially reinforce their knowledge of metres before moving on to kilometres. However, I had them sit in on the introduction to kilometres. In the discussion, one child from the group who had struggled wanted to answer. I had an initial reluctance as I felt that I needed to make sure they were sure on metres but decided to have him share an answer as I always try to create an ethos in the classroom where all ideas are valued, even when they might not be ‘correct’. That child showed an excellent understanding of kilometres and converting that unit into metres. Not only that, but so did a number of the group! This could have been down to a misinterpretation of assessment, or that the introduction of the kilometres helped put metres more into context for the children.
Whatever the reason for the children’s ability to work with kilometres and metres, what was clear to me was that the differentiated activity I had planned would have held back the children from the learning potential they had in that lesson. That led me to question – how often have I inhibited the learning potential of children by trying to differentiate learning when it may have not been appropriate, just to show my mentor that I could indeed differentiate learning activities?
Now, of course, it would be foolish to suggest that learning should never be differentiated. This statement is not validated by evidence that I have, but by the need to provide inclusive activities for all. This is applicable to children who need support and extending. In fact, if a teacher does not differentiate an activity for a child who needs extending, then they are inhibiting the learning potential of that child by their lack of differentiation.
I think, as with most issues in education I’m finding, there is not a clear cut answer to whether differentiation is a support or barrier. Most likely, it depends on the context of learning and all those involved. I would suggest that to say every lesson should have evidence of differentiation would make it a barrier, for the learners and the teacher. However, differentiation is a necessary tool that all teachers should be effectiver at implementing and the best teachers will know when and to what degree each task should be differentiated. In order to support and extend children with special educational needs and gifted and talented children, it will be necessary to consider.
I am Matthew Roberts. I graduated from my Initial Teacher Training course at Manchester Metropolitan University. I have been working as a supply teacher for 2 months in the Manchester area and am embarking on a full-time position at a growing, vibrant school in South West Manchester as a Year 6 teacher. You can follow me @Mroberts90Matt and read my educational blog at mroberts1990.wordpress.com