Proper Differentiation

Some teachers fret about differentiation and tie themselves up in knots about it.

I used to.

My early teaching career was blighted by the wrong advice and that advice was to photocopy the hell out of various resources and give groups of children different worksheets that dovetailed their needs.

This never felt right to me because to truly differentiate I’d have to provide every learner with something unique. This reminded me of the quote by management thinker Charles Handy:

“Instead of a National Curriculum for education, what is really needed is an individual curriculum for every child.”

Yeah, right, in your dreams.

Broad-brush approaches to differentiation based on abilities was considered the next best thing so teachers were vying for position around a knackered photocopier that served its purpose as a differentiation machine.

Senior managers would often call in to make sure that we were differentiating and what that meant in reality was top, middle and bottom worksheets.

It was embarrassing then to think that’s what teaching was all about and its shameful now that this still goes on.

Proper, true and authentic differentiation is not about dishing out worksheets.

For me, it is an active assessment process where a teacher is basically an editor, engaged in a constant evaluation of what they know, what they don’t know and what they partly know. It’s about tweaking and adjusting every step of the way.

It’s not about worksheets or their digital equivalents.

Teaching, learning and assessment are intimately linked and differentiation is done constantly.

Davis (2013)  gets it right when he says,

minute by minute, teachers scan pupils’ faces, behaviour and replies, seeking to diagnose levels of knowledge, understanding, concentration and motivation. Even in just a few moments with pupils, teachers use the information thus gained to make multitudes of decisions modifying their language, task setting, organisation and timing. Hence, a teacher must constantly monitor and diagnose learners’ existing cognitive and motivational states.

This is differentiation.

It is what Ann Clucas calls ‘soft’ differentiation in her book How To Teach Everybody. She lists various practical strategies that you might find useful and says,

“These strategies were often tweaks to my teaching style. There were lots of ways to create small, supporting steps to help pupils achieve, which did not involve writing dozens of different worksheets or teaching three different levels simultaneously.”

So differentiation isn’t an onerous task, it’s what good teachers do the moment pupils walk through the door when they make eye contact. It’s about reading each pupil and making sure you are on the same page.

And what does Dr Jasper Green, Her Majesty’s Inspector, Schools (Subject Lead for Science), have to say about all of this. Well, it is refreshing:

For science to make sense the science teacher must correctly match the activity, explanations, questions and scientific concepts to be taught to the students in front of them. Some might call this ‘matching’ differentiation, but I think it goes beyond that. It’s about reading your class and making a decision as to what’s the best strategies and narrative to use at a particular moment in time to helpa specific group of students understand a scientific concept. This doesn’t mean that every student will require a bespoke teaching programme. But it does require the teacher to have a detailed knowledge of progression, so that lessons can be planned and adjusted in response to the needs of the students in their class.

Leave a Reply