The dangers of differentiation…and what to do about them


Image: @jasonramasami

Differentiation seems to revolve around a dilemma. It is evidently clear that all students have different needs and areas of weakness; yet it is also true – or so it seems to me – that if we obsess about what they cannot do now, or do not know now, we risk losing sight of the direction we could be taking them in. Valiant attempts to ‘differentiate’ often prove counterproductive because, cumulatively, they decrease challenge in the long-term.

A few things about differentiation that seem true to me are:

1. That long-term outcomes – in terms of hard results and quality of work – are the true measure of successful differentiation. If outcomes are improving over time across a range of UDGs, the teacher’s differentiation is almost certainly effective.

2. That classroom differentiation revolves around a mix of anticipation and agility. When planning we need to predict when and where students will require support or stretching, but also we must respond in real time to unexpected needs in the unscripted social dynamic that is a lesson.

3. That over time good teachers should aim to develop, adjust and refine their delivery with such finesse that differentiation melts into their practice. At this stage, it could be said that it ceases to remain a thing.

4. That it is our job to challenge students to go beyond what they can do now, not to keep them rooted to their current spot.

What follows is my ‘Differentiation Hall of Shame’ – mistakes I have made myself and how I have sought to rectify them.

1. Differentiation because you think you should. This is more about guilt than it is student needs, but unfortunately it manifests as a patronising assumption – I would feel terrible if I did not do something special for poor little Freddy. Some topics and tasks require very careful consideration of the spectrum of entry points; others, especially when introducing new knowledge that does not rely so much on prior knowledge, do not. The trick? Ignore the guilt and think strategically about where and when to exert the finite time that you have.

2. Differentiation to meet an outsider’s expectations. Only the subject teacher has a handle on the needs, working habits and requirements of her students. This understanding is built up over time; it is a rich and complex data-set. Observation rubrics that contain a box saying ‘evidence of differentiation’ can lead to the Kafkaesque scenario where a teacher under-challenges a student to keep a member of SLT with a clipboard happy. Madness. The solution for schools in this case is to measure the effectiveness of differentiation through long-term data – only when a weakness is uncovered should classroom practice be investigated as a cause.

3. Differentiation according to prior-attainment grade or target grade. This looks something like...level 4s you will learn to spell these simple words, level 5s you will spell these medium level words and level 6s you will look at these hard ones. Such tasks give assessment data too much credit and ignore, once again, the richer qualitative data that we tacitly accumulate about our students. Every English teacher knows that technical writing skills – in terms of strengths and weaknesses – are unique to the individual. Only this week, a very advanced year 10 writer got into a good-natured argument with me.

“It is spelt ‘prehaps’, I know it is!” she protested earnestly.

The solution is to bring in strategies like DIRT, proofreading and redrafting. This way we can have students work not on our crude assumptions about their ability, but on their genuine errors and misconceptions.

4. Differentiation that takes time away from planning subject content. James Theobald has written wonderfully about opportunity cost this weekend. The cost of planning, say, a host of differentiated worksheets can lead to a deficit in time spent researching subject content, developing questions to test and stretch students’ thinking, considering different explanation strategies – such as stories, analogies and a range of multi-modal examples – or planning for the careful modelling and deconstruction of the target product. If these are not given due priority, we are likely to be left with unclear and confused students. Often, we will be left having to patch up our lessons with individualised help because we did not introduce the material to students as clearly and succinctly as we should have.

5. Differentiation according to all/most/some. A healthy dose of self-delusion is important in teaching. We need to partly erase the assumptions we make about a student’s capacity to learn, yet also prepare for the support that might still be required. All/most/some tells some students that it is okay to opt-out, and, more dangerously, creates an opportunity for us to subconsciously lower our expectations for some. Stick to ‘All of you will…’ and then intervene with those who need it.

6. Differentiation that does the thinking for them. Dweck stresses the importance of ‘struggle’; Willingham how students should be thinking hard about subject content; psychology in general, from my limited understanding, about the importance of thinking about semantic meaning for long-term retention. It is very tempting to give children easy work to keep them happy and maintain the illusion that they are sufficiently learning, yet how will they make any progress if they are only working on things they already know? At times, yes, strategic repetition is necessary for long-term retention and automaticity, but this must be tempered by healthy ‘struggle’. A very simple trick is to withhold any supportive scaffolding until all students have had a decent attempt at a task. So for a few minutes stand back. Don’t hand-out support sheets, or assign a TA to a student or intervene yourself. Stand back and watch for a while and intervene a little later with those who require it. You will now be working now with genuine need and not misplaced assumption.

7. Differentiation as a life sentence. One day I might write a modern morality tale entitled The Tragic Tale of Evie Smith. Evie has little support coming from her home life and she arrives at secondary school at a significant academic disadvantage to her peers. She moves from lesson to lesson always given the differentiated worksheet, always sat next to the TA, always congratulated on putting her pen to paper. I am not sure what the answer is here. Nature and nurture have conspired against her but that does not mean that we should join the conspiracy. If we never challenge students, or give them the chance to get hard stuff right, they will comfortably meet this expectation.

8. Differentiation as a list of rules! The more experienced we become, the more tools we acquire with which to help our students. Yet sometimes we are well and truly stumped. Sometimes our well-honed strategies fall short. Often the reasons are obvious: a severe or profound learning difficulty, for instance. At other times the reasons are murky: this student is capable of responding well but for some reason they are not. Why? At this stage, it is best to seek advice from their form tutor, their other subject teachers or their parents. Is this a problem with the way I am teaching him or is there something I am unaware of interfering with his reception of my teaching? Usually, the latter is the cause. We know that human minds learn in a remarkably similar way but we also know that the knowledge that every mind is shaped by is hugely different and complex, as are the individual conditions through which they experience our instruction. As a teacher, it is wise to keep searching for ways to help these complex ‘outlier’ students, as well as to continue to hone those strategies that work well with the majority.


So, the nub of this post is this. Differentiation should be informed not by assumptions of need, but by a leap of faith. This is the place we imagine the students can get to in the future, however hard this might be for them.

This post has been in preparation for my #TLT14 talk on differentiation and challenge later in the month. I hope to see you at the event.

Related posts:

Differentiating the responsive way
Differentiation: making possible the impossible
Just how easy is ‘high expectations for all’?

12 thoughts on “The dangers of differentiation…and what to do about them

  1. I think this is an extremely important topic and I agree with everything you have written here.

    I am in the field of teacher-training and consultancy so ‘differentiation’ is a hotty for me.

    Over and again I find teachers’ mindset gets in the way of ambitious expectations. When, for example, I find teachers blanking out half the words on an Activity Sheet for those children who, according to their mindset, “will be overwhelmed by so many words”.

    In effect, the children who are apparently less mature, less articulate, or most needy, get much less practice than the more mature and apparently quicker-to-learn children.

    Times this by day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.

    Hey presto – there we have a contribution to the socio-economic gap, the gender gap, the EAL gap, the ‘dyslexia’ gap, the you-name-it-gap.

    And I promise you that it started as the mindset, misconceptions about children’s capacity to learn, years of expectation that teachers will provide different levels of work for different children – special needs caused, in the long run, by the well-meaning teachers themselves and their conscious acts of ‘differentiation’ from the outset.

  2. I have come to the realisation in life it is not what we do for others but what others do for themselves that makes the difference. Learning , like surviving, is about adapting your environment to meet your needs (Maslow – food, shelter etc) so instead of a top down model where the teacher manages the learning environment should there not be an element of equipping the learner with the skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours to manage their own learning environment to meet their own learning needs? In some senses differentiation negates this development. I am aware there needs to be a balance but differentiation or no differentiation is not the balance we need. We need to add a third element and it should make up the difference in order to maintain a balance. For independent able learners we do not need to provide differentiated materials so the third element fills the void. On the other side of the scale we may see a combination of differentiated materials and the third element and the proportions will vary according to task and over time.

    I have a term for the third element in this equation. I call it “Learning Intelligence” or LQ for short. I define it as the ability to manage your learning environment to meet your learning needs. You can find a graphic showing the various aspects of LQ here: and many articles about LQ starting here:

    Comments always welcome.

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