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’?

Distilling the best out of words

Tharby-language-cultureImage: @jasonramasami

Discovering a weakness in our own teaching practice can result in one of two feelings (or a mixture of both). The first is one of utter frustration and overwhelming fatigue. I cannot bear to face this out – under the carpet it goes. The other – as sickeningly saccharine as it sounds – is to treat it as a gift. Bravo! Finally I’ve found something that I can work on. This week’s epiphany had me languishing closer to the former initially, but beginning to shift towards the latter after some thinking.

Here’s the context. A few months ago I wrote a post about challenge.

Its concluding paragraph read like this:

One final thought – forgive me if I am stating the bleeding obvious. I have come to the conclusion that challenge is almost entirely bound up in the way we immerse children in language. This might be the language we encourage students to read, write, speak and think in, along with the language we model through speech and the written word. Ultimately, if we raise the quality of language, we raise the challenge. Simple?

Looking back, the question mark after ‘simple’ was telling. I had a grandiose answer, but not a pragmatic one. I knew the problem, but not the solution.

After reading Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion this weekend, I got to considering two of the main strategies he advocates: ‘Right is Right’ and ‘Format Matters’. Essentially, ‘Right is Right’ is about holding out for the best answer in classroom dialogue, whereas ‘Format Matters’ is about insisting that students speak in full sentences with proficient grammar. It was only on Monday, during a class discussion with my year 10 group, that I realised how shamefully far away from this goal I have been for so long. The realisation was a tough one: for many years not only have I accepted sloppy speech patterns from my charges, not only have I regularly settled for half-complete answers but I have also prided myself on being skilled at leading question and answer sessions!


This uncomfortable insight has led me to a broader reflection. As an English teacher, words are my medium; my students will rise and fall depending on their ability to distil language into the best form they possibly can. This must begin in the dialogue I elicit in my classroom, but should extend further into other areas of pedagogy. It is the language culture of an English classroom that matters and this, I am starting to believe, is more important than any innovative, fly-by-night teaching strategy. It is the root, the bone, the beating heart of what I must do.

But how? First, it is a shared, guided process. Students will not progress if left to acquire sophisticated language by themselves; similarly, I cannot expect them to become the kings and queens of grandiloquence merely by lending an ear to my silver-tongued sermons. Second, it involves cutting the pace of my lessons and an acceptance that the growth and protection of a classroom culture is equal in importance to covering lesson content. And last of all, it will only be through deliberate and sustained practice that I can make it happen – I think it will take a year to make it so.

In a nutshell, this:

Teacher: What does the phrase ‘ebbing tide’ suggest to us about the poet’s opinion of war?
Student: That war goes back and forward.
Teacher: Yes, that war is repetitive and inevitable, like the tide.

Becomes this:

Teacher: What does the phrase ‘ebbing tide’ suggest to us about the poet’s opinion of war?
Student 1: That war goes back and forward.
Teacher: Back and forward – how might you rephrase that?
Student 1: It’s repetitive like the sea.
Teacher: So war is?
Student 1: Repetitive too.
Teacher: Now as a full sentence. The phrase…
Student 1: So, the phrase ‘ebbing tide’ suggests that war is inevitable because the sea never stops.
Teacher: Who can take this insight a little further?
Student 2: War is like nature; we cannot avoid it.
Teacher: Good. Can anyone help her with a better version of ‘cannot avoid it’?
Student 3: Inevitable?
Teacher: Okay, fire away in a full sentence.
Student 3: The phrase ‘ebbing tide’ suggests that war is repetitive and like the tide it is an inevitable part of nature that we cannot avoid.
Teacher: Good. Let’s write that sentence up.

I know that it will take time for students to learn how to respond to my cues and prompts, but once the groundwork is done this might well provide richer pickings than I have ever been able to offer before. Most beautifully of all, it should not add to planning time at all.

The ultimate aim will be to make refining and redrafting part of the fabric of classroom life. This culture will be supplemented through other strategies that I have already made headway with such as ‘live’ co-constructed writing, paired writing, Directed Improvement and Reflection Time, regular redrafting/editing of written work and allowing students more thinking and ‘mental rehearsal’ time.

The missing link, however, has been embedding this process further up the chain when ideas are first uttered in words. My new focus, I hope, will provide the missing link between speech and writing I have long been looking for.

GCSE results and the stories we tell ourselves

stories-we-tell-ourselvesWEBImage: @jasonramasami

This year I was staying in a North Devon village on GCSE results day. I had no internet access. By descending a ramp to the shoreline and huddling against a dripping wall that dangled with clumps of seaweed, I managed to pick up a 3G signal and download that fateful list of names and accompanying letters.

As always, I was met with a little bit of pleasant surprise and a little bit of disappointment. There were some expected patterns and some unexpected ones too. From the word go, I began instinctively to turn those abstract As, Bs and Cs into comprehensible human narratives. He did well because… She must have struggled in the exam because…

I have been mulling over these stories we tell ourselves, how retrospectively, through the solid lens of hindsight, we attempt to unearth those causal links that bring coherence to exam grades.

I had three GCSE classes this year – two Y11 groups and a Y10 English literature group. By and large, things went well for them. My Y11 top-set English Language results, however, did leave me puzzled. (About a third of our Y11 – around 120 students – are in one of four top sets. Grades should range from B to A*.) I was not quite expecting the range I encountered:

5 x A*
6 x A
10 x B
5 x C
1 x D

The AQA English Language GCSE is now made up of 40% controlled assessment and 60% final written exam. With the demise of speaking and listening, which once made up 20%, more rides on the exam itself than ever before. As we know, English results at the C/D borderline have also dropped this year. Naturally, the national picture needs to be taken into consideration, but I do feel that it is unwise to pass the buck completely.

So, I started conjuring up some narratives for my own class…

• The number of A*s suggests that I have a particular knack for teaching high-flying students.

• I should have taken more responsibility for the boy who got a D. Perhaps the fact that he was also being privately tutored meant that I took my eye off the ball in lessons.

• The number of Cs in the class suggests that I focused too much on the high-fliers. Did I attend to these students’ needs as well as I might have?

But these tales did not quite cut the mustard. I tried these instead:

• Too few students achieved an A or above. I failed too many who had the potential to do so much better.

• There was nothing more I could have done for the boy who got a D. I must learn to accept that sometimes under-achievement just happens.

• I was just unfortunate with the number of Cs. In small sample sizes, like a class of 27, freak results are more commonplace.

But was it all about me? And so I got to thinking about the wider social and individual causes:

• My A* students were those who always exhibited perseverance and hard work. All were from middle-class backgrounds.

• The boy who got a D was undergoing a number of complex personal issues. No teacher could have done anything about it.

• Most of my C students were those who lacked confidence in written exams. In the main, this was beyond my control.

When I got home from Devon, I examined the question breakdown data from the exam board:

• In the exam, eight students achieved A*. The poor quality of the controlled assessments (40% of the grade) I oversaw in class  prevented three students from achieving A*.

• Looking at his scores, my D student – who was actually quite capable – wrote next to nothing for each question.

• There was no single question that scuppered my C students’ performances. They got Cs and not Bs in the exam for a range of different reasons with no consistent pattern.

For any set of exam results, answers come in countless intertwining narratives. Pinning down concrete reasons is hard. As individual teachers we must not shy away from our personal responsibility, yet we must also remember that we are in thrall to the national picture, our school contexts, the decade of prior learning our students bring with them, the social environments our students are raised in, their individual characteristics and, of course, just plain old good and bad luck. If, with similar grouping and contexts, our results are significantly better or worse than those of our colleagues – or other very significant trends are apparent – then we can make cautious inferences about the quality of our teaching. If this is not the case, then we will need to accept that we cannot always be sure.

Results, therefore, give us a flavour of the success or failure of our teaching practice but not the full picture. Close analysis of letters and numbers can veer us away from the truth as well as lead us closer to it. The fact that my students averaged only 7.56 on question 4 of their English exam, for instance, is useful only if I know why this is the case and how to make it better next time round. Should more time be set aside for practice? Is the cause a lack of knowledge about language rather than a lack of knowledge about how to tackle the question effectively?

I worry that the brave new world of Performance Related Pay will lead to the oversimplification of these narratives as school leaders on a budget look to withhold pay increases and classroom teachers are forced to justify themselves through increasingly specious arguments. I believe that exam results, whatever they are, should spur the profession towards betterment, not hold it back.

Every year, after all the navel gazing, my exam results always boil down to two simple decisions:

• Get a little bit better at making sure that no-one in the class is ever left behind.
• Get a little bit better at teaching every topic I cover.

I’m sure I’ll be saying the same thing next year!

Creating a research-rich climate: our first steps


Image: @jasonramasami

Having recently been appointed as ‘research and development leader’ at my school, I would like to put down in writing my thoughts about how I see this role working in practice. Much has been written recently about how and whether our education system would benefit from becoming better research-informed, yet there appears to be little joined-up thinking emanating from the multitude of institutes, trusts, charities and school alliances that claim that they want to make this a reality. I shall avoid the dictionary of acronyms this could easily become, concentrating instead on how we want this to look at our school and where we might go from there.

With Shaun Allison, I am working on a three-year project to bring about a research-engaged culture. At present, our approach to research is quite unstructured and ad-hoc. We are already a very good school, yet we believe that creating a more systematic research-rich climate would be an important step for us. We are well-aware that the first stop on our journey to ‘research-informed’ is ‘research-aware’. Thus the two long-term aims I am working towards are as follows:

1. To encourage staff at all levels to become ‘critical consumers’ of educational research so as to create an evidenced-based teaching and learning culture.

2. To develop and support a range of forms of research within the school.

There is no blueprint for how to bring the above about. Indeed, the Education Endowment Foundation have just launched a wide-ranging randomised controlled trial which will focus on the best ways of communicating research evidence to schools and how to encourage schools to engage with it. We will keep an eye on this, but will also plough our own furrow as we seek to work within our school and with local Higher Education providers.

Below are some of the avenues we will be exploring.

Partnership with Higher Education

Next academic year, we will be working with Dr Brian Marsh from The University of Brighton. Our relationship will be reciprocal. Brian will be supporting us by improving our understanding of action research and research methodology. He will work directly with us and our ‘Learning Innovators’ (who will be undertaking year-long action research projects) once or twice a month. The aim is to set in motion a more rigorous action research process. The understanding of sound methodology I hope to develop through this process will be central to its sustainability. On the other hand, we will provide Brian with the resources and data he requires for two research projects. Not only will Brian’s findings be useful in taking our school forward, but we also hope to learn much from working alongside an experienced educational researcher as he goes about his business.

Learning innovators

Our ‘Learning Innovators’ will be required to engage with the wider evidence base as they undertake their initial reading. As a requisite of their projects they will work within their department areas to disseminate their findings as well as present to the full staff body. We hope then that they will be inspired to take evidence-informed thinking into their future practice, promoting a culture of ‘micro-research’ projects within subject areas.

Critical reading culture

Schools and teachers can easily becoming locked into an inward-looking cycle. To avoid such stagnation, it is vital that our thinking and practice is challenged and influenced from outside evidence too. The cycle is difficult to break, especially considering the pressures of workload and work/life balance. Our first stage will be to help make professional reading part of the fabric of our school. Those of us on Twitter or who read educational books, blogs and research papers regularly can forget a simple fact: many teachers do not read as a professional pursuit. So how do we help teachers become aware of this wider evidence base in light of the truth that much educational research is either very expensive to obtain or written in quite an inaccessible style?

Our first approach will be the EduBook Club. Shaun has written about the practicalities here. In short, all teachers and TAs will choose a book to read, will attend seminars on INSET days to critically evaluate their reading and will consider how this thinking might influence practice going forward. Our DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time can be used by staff for this reading if need be. The texts range from the Hattie and Yates’ research-based Visible Learning and the Science of how we Learn to Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence. We have wrestled with whether more anecdotal texts like Berger’s should be included but have decided that we want to set in motion a wider culture that looks beyond the school gates for inspiration wherever that might be – such ideas can than form the focus of in-school research and evaluation. It’s also worth remembering that research by its nature plays catch-up: there is much practice across the world that works brilliantly and, as yet, has yet to be given the green light by research. Group members will be encouraged to share new theories and evidence with their peers within subject areas and through our 15-minute forum programme.

Hearts and minds

Alex Quigley has recently written cogently – here – about teacher engagement with research: if it is seen as another stick to beat teachers with the impact is unlikely to go beyond that of lip-service. A research-informed culture must not become dominated by a top-down ‘Ofsted in sheep’s clothing’ approach, nor should it be a free-for-all where dubious findings (learning styles, for instance) share equal weighting with robust findings. I appreciate, however, that the key to the success of our project will be how we win people over. I am already mentally preparing for the launch to staff in September, the message of which will be ‘teaching is an art and a science’. I also know that working the informal structures of the school – staff room chats, for instance – will be vital too as we try to engage and excite more teachers. I love the fact that our subject-based teaching assistants, who have such a wealth of untapped knowledge, will also take part in the reading groups. In line with this, the reading groups will include members of SLT but will not be led by them.

Personal development

I am a teacher and not a researcher. I shall always remain so. Yet I aim through this project to explore the ways my school can inspire ordinary classroom practitioners, like myself, to become engaged with, in and even through, research. I will hold my hands up and admit that I start from a position of relative ignorance. This is important because those seeking to bring about a research-rich culture should not be seen to be working in an impenetrable sphere far from the real world of our colleagues. If we do, we might inadvertently rebuild the ‘ivory tower’ that characterises many teachers’ beliefs about educational research already – only this time under the roof of our very own school! I have a lot of reading to do and there are a lot of collaborative links to be made. We will make mistakes along the way but that is very much in the spirit of what we want to achieve: a school where research evidence can shed light on our successes, our failures and guide us towards improvement.

Questions for the next year and beyond

  • How do we ensure that we are in receipt of the most robust worldwide research evidence available?
  • How do we communicate these findings in an accessible way without losing any of the finer nuances?
  • How do we promote engagement with research to teachers who already have such a heavy workload?
  • How do we ensure that we utilise research findings that are sharply focused on the most pressing needs of our students?
  • How do we ensure that research evidence enhances what we already do well as opposed to providing a limiting dogma?
  • As a ‘research champion’, how to I ensure that my own biases and preferences do not affect the content and breadth of research evidence I promote?


The above is just a flavour of our initial thinking. I appreciate that the role of research in education is a contentious issue. Our approach must remain cautious and we must ask critical questions of the research findings we share. However, this kind of scrutiny should not only be reserved for research findings; we should apply it to too to the thousands of hunches and biases that make up much of our day-to-day decision making in schools. Much of this is built on solid foundations of wisdom and experience, but not all of it. If our research-rich climate leads to more questions of ‘why?’ or ‘might it be better like this?’ then its effect will surely be positive.

In this previous post, I set out my arguments for the importance of research-evidence for teachers.

If you are interested in our project, or can provide us with extra guidance, please contact me through Twitter @atharby.