Differentiation: making possible the impossible

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Image: @jasonramasami

When I think about the students I teach, I probably should make a beeline to their personality traits – their helpfulness, cheerfulness, kindness or pain-in-the-backside-ness. Or, perhaps, I should visualise an image of their pimply or foundation-masked faces. But no. Instead, etched in this particular English teacher’s mind’s eye, is their handwriting. Eddie’s hideous scrawl that hides his mature and concise control of syntax. Imogen’s perfectly curlicued lettering that can’t quite disguise a simplistic matter-of-factness of style. Tom’s horror-show spelling that can sometimes be forgiven because of an unexpected rhetorical flourish.

They are all different, very different. Now let’s multiply these three by ten and we have your average class. Grades and levels might help me group these thirty into smaller groups, yet even within these smaller groups the range, in terms of what they can do and can’t do, and in terms of what they know and don’t know, is startling. In fact, it is impossible for me to hold all this complex data in my mind at one time. This difficulty is further compounded by the truth that never will I be able to see inside minds and memories to discover the extent of comprehension that exists beyond what appears on the page or what is uttered from the mouth.

Graham Nuthall’s incredible research, detailed in his book The Hidden Lives of Learners, shows how each student enters the classroom with very different prior knowledge even if their ability is broadly similar. New knowledge, as we know, can only be assimilated in the memory by attaching itself to existing knowledge schemas. This means, in effect, that each and every child will experience our lessons differently and so learn very different information and concepts from the same lesson. Nuthall’s amazing finding was that about a third of what a student learns is unique to that student and is not learned by other students in the class.

So, differentiation – or challenging all at the level of need – is pretty hard. In an attempt to paper-over this uncomfortable truth, I have attempted many teaching strategies. Unfortunately, however, each of these strategies has seemed to both fix the problem and simultaneously create a new problem:

• If they work in ability groups, then the more-able can stretch each other…yet the less-able might hold each other back.

• If they work in mixed-ability groups, then the more-able can support the less-able…yet it is harder to challenge the more-able with new material in this scenario.

• If students are given different tasks, then they will have work suited to their ability…yet confusion about how to complete the task is more likely as each task will need separate instructions.

• If I only ask simple questions to the less-able, then they will be more confident when talking in class…yet they will not be stretched by challenging, higher-order questioning.

• If I only ask challenging questions to the more-able, then their thinking will always be stretched…yet it might be that they too need testing on their basic understanding.

And the list goes on…It seems, therefore, that attempts to differentiate can militate against the very learning I am trying to elicit. The above are all useful teaching strategies, of course, but are they useful differentiation strategies? It seems to me that too much that goes by the name of ‘differentiation’ is driven by deficit. It focuses on what they can’t do now, rather than what they might be able to do in the future. This is further compounded by the fact that the more ‘different’ learning experiences I try to plan into one lesson, the more time consuming it becomes to plan and the more watered-down my effect becomes. I cannot deliver six different lessons as effectively as I can one. 

So what’s the solution? Clearly our students are all so different that they cannot be taught through the same methods, can they?

Well, perhaps they can. When I reverse my thinking I find the complexity a little easier to cope with. It may be impossible to tailor work to the level of each individual in every single lesson. However, over a longer period of time – a year, a key stage – it is less daunting. That’s why I think that differentiation can never be measured in an individual lesson; it might look like they are all learning or being challenged, but you can bet your bottom dollar they are not. My way of looking at it is that if our students  make progress over time, irrespective of ability, then we are surely differentiating well.

So here are my four – very simple and obvious – suggestions for creating a classroom culture that might ensure that all abilities thrive.

1. An ethos of hard work and sky-high behavioural expectations must be established. As Dweck’s mindset research has ascertained, students must attribute success to hard-work; failure must be normalised, or even celebrated, as part of this ethos.

2. High challenge is essential. However, we must accept that it is not realistic to expect that every lesson is challenging for all. At times we need to, as Doug Lemov suggests, ‘encode success’ through practising the basic knowledge and skills that underpin our subject areas. Challenge, therefore, is about imagining where the student might get to in the future and then leading them there, however circuitous the journey.

3. Responsiveness is key. We must anticipate as best we can the needs of our individual students, yet we must always be prepared to act and respond to the unanticipated needs too. See my post on the matter.

4. Differentiation is no bolt-on. It should be infused in everything we do. How might we explain complex and abstract ideas with clarity and concision? How might we break up complex questions into a simpler, yet no less challenging, series of questions? How might we deliver instructions in the most meaningful way? How might we, as David Didau might say, make the implicit thought processes of experts, explicit to our students? Etc, etc.

Please don’t see this argument as an excuse for binning differentiation as a frame of reference; in fact, I see it as quite the opposite. Let me finish on a slightly pretentious note. The concept or ‘force’ known as Brahman comes from the Hindu religion – it is said to be the ultimate reality or ‘soul’ underlying all phenomena. Perhaps the following analogy for Brahman could also apply to how differentiation might melt into everything we do:

When you throw a lump of salt into water, it dissolves; you cannot take it out again, and hold it in your hands. Yet if you sip any part of the water, the salt is present. In the same way the soul can be perceived everywhere and anywhere; the soul has no limit or boundary.

— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:4.1–4, 8

Related posts:

Why is challenge such a challenge?

Differentiating the responsive way

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8 thoughts on “Differentiation: making possible the impossible

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