We Need To Pop The Differentiation Bubble!

Reading time: 7
Woman Blowing Bubble Gum


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

Can teachers actually meet the needs of all their students?

Let’s recap on the educational silver bullets of the past decades: mandarin, no excuses, traditional versus progressive teaching, brain gym, learning styles, “constructivism and E.D. Hirsch’s excruciatingly detailed accounts of what every 1st or 3rd grader should know, to name a few …the elusive panacea that will solve all education’s woes has remained, well, elusive.” (Edweek)

This post is lengthy and provocative; a concept that is unlikely to be commonplace for decades, but please stay with me … Consider students are all over the world when it comes to achievement. Just take a look at the data from any given classroom – starting points determined from standardised tests, special needs and predictions. We all must get better used to being average.

Difficult To Implement

It says in the English Teachers’ Standards, “adapt to meet the needs of all students.” That’s the toughest ask placed upon a classroom teacher right there. I wonder if we could consider removing the word “all”?

Differentiation found its mojo in the 1980s after countless publications showcasing how ‘teachers could meet the needs of all their children’. The concept itself offers teachers some hope, because as reflective and caring practitioners, we want to meet the needs of our students. After all, show me any teacher that doesn’t. If we didn’t believe in differentiation, we would challenging one of our core purposes as teachers – helping every one of them.

  • We use differentiation to gauge what students already know and what they still need to learn.
  • We then differentiate through demonstrating what students know through multiple teaching techniques.
  • Differentiation encourages student/teacher to add depth to the learning/teaching process.

But, have we been sold short? Fine in principle, but difficult in practice for one lesson.

83 percent of teachers nationwide stated that differentiation was “somewhat” or “very” difficult to implement. (Fordham Institute, 2008)

Here are three scenarios.

1. Swimming Club

Over the past year, my son has been attending swimming lessons at our local pool. When I’m not swimming myself, as a proud father I look across the water and observe how my son is developing his front crawl and backstroke. I watch the instructor carefully and as a teacher and father, you would be correct to assume I observe with pride and with a critical eye.

There are just six students in the class. Each child is approximately six-seven years old. The swimming pool is 1 metre deep and most of the children can stand up with their heads above the water. When the instructor is communicating to each of the children who are standing on the side of the pool, he directs one child at the time to ‘jump in’ and follow his various instructions to demonstrate their capacity to swim, jump, stand and so forth. Cue, one instructor meeting the needs of one child – whilst the rest look on.

Now, I am being pedantic, but throughout the 30-minute lesson, this process repeats for each child for each technique. On observation, I roughly calculated that my son spends around half of the lesson ‘out of water’, observing, listening and/or daydreaming. Imagine if there were just 10 students? I don’t know if this is legally possible, I don’t know what would be dangerous for young children, but let’s just move over to the notion that this instructor and my son are now in a maths lesson.

One teacher, thirty students and a 60-minute lesson. The teacher explains how to draw an isosceles triangle and how to calculate each of the angles. He/she questions 4 or 5 students as the lesson moves forward, they try to meet the needs of all students by testing the students’ knowledge with recall questions and application of drawing the triangle into exercise books – or at the front of the classroom on the board. At this point, there is a high probability that my son has not yet been asked any question, although he has been listening and following all of the lesson. Other than sampling the mood in the room, the teacher gauging if a child is right or wrong with various questions posed, asks students and works on regardless until they a) asks my son a question and is answered or b) is asked a question by my son himself and his knowledge is tested.

2. Teacher Training

Imagine you are a teacher attended a conference. Whether you are listening to a keynote or attended a workshop, as an adult, there is a high chance you may leave disappointed. This is simply because the person leading the event cannot meet your individual needs because there is likely to be 30 to 500 people or more in a room.

As adults, one would expect that we are little more mature and can look after ourselves in a particular type of learning environment. Keynote? Fine, we know we are being spoken to. Workshop or conference, fine, although we know this is not entirely true, as when we are placed into a learning situation at a conference/workshop, we often expect to take something meaningful away with us – even if we are not enjoying being asked to take part or learn on demand.

Therefore, why do we expect our teachers to be able to do this with our children? What’s different for teachers with children in classroom? Is it because they are not so advanced? Do we have lesser expectations of their wide and varied needs?

3. Classroom Myth

For over a decade, I’ve been training teachers in my school and elsewhere, and although I assumed I was doing fairly good job, I always knew that I could not please everyone and that there was a high probability that I would not be able to do so – despite my best intentions. Over past three months, having worked over 3,000 teachers in all sorts of environments, something has changed and has made me question, why, for nearly 25 years I have lived with this perception as a teacher, that I have believed I can meet the needs of all my children in a classroom situation.

Firstly, there are some schools that still believe, particularly during a lesson observation, that a teacher will be meeting the individual needs of their students. This belief is increased when it is for an appraisal observation or worse, for an external inspection. Mentors, working with teachers new to the profession, once lesson planning and behaviour management is addressed, a mentor will start to ask that the teacher starts to meet the needs of every student as the next major hurdle to tackle.

Secondly, how the ‘differentiation bubble’ is communicated to every teacher is vital, because if we are not careful, every teacher could be set up to fail for the rest of their career, succumbed by an unattainable illusion of ‘you must meet the needs of all your children’, every lesson – or during an observation.

It is only now I have become highly sensitive to this fad.

Research by Thomas B. Fordham Institute said “teachers were provided with extensive professional development and ongoing coaching. Three years later, the researchers wanted to know if the program had an impact on student learning. But they were stumped. ‘We couldn’t answer the question … because no one was actually differentiating’.”

The End of Average

The biggest reason differentiation is a myth, is the way teachers are deployed in our classrooms. Bring “together several students who struggle to learn, along with a smattering of gifted kids, while adding a few English-language learners and a bunch of academically average students and expect a single teacher to differentiate for each of them.”

The second reason? We are not really sure what we are differentiating. It may be a worksheet, the curriculum, 30 students in one class versus another 30 in another; one student with a teaching assistant and another 4 or 5 kids requiring literacy intervention. The conclusion to ‘Differentiation Doesn’t Work‘ suggests “differentiation might have a chance to work if we are willing, as a nation, to return to the days when students of similar abilities were placed in classes with other students whose learning needs paralleled their own.”

However, I disagree, but I’m not quite sure what the solution is either.

The Cause

In The End Of Average, Harvard graduate and author, Todd Rose highlights the work of American psychologist, Edward Thorndike. He singlehandedly defined education as we know it. His definition of the purpose of schools and education was to sort students by talent; to predict how a student will perform. Rose writes that “it is deeply ironic, that one of the most influential in people in the history of education, believed that education could do very little to change a student’s ability and was therefore limited to identifying those students with a superior brain.”

Thorndike opposed the idea that learning should reflect nature, which was the main thought of developmental scientists at that time. He instead thought that schooling should improve upon nature. The Law of Effect.

Thorndike invented a convenient metric for evaluating student performance. That by collecting quantitative information, we could help teachers and educators deal with practical educational problems in the classroom. This now results in those most likely to succeed and those most likely to fail.

I wonder how many of us have been on the receiving end of this metric? For example, placed in the bottom or top sets of a maths class, or defined by a grade and not reach that university or college place. Today, Thorndike’s education labyrinth ranks everyone within it walls, and not just the students. It’s the same for teachers when ranking performance and pay rise. Teachers are evaluated at the end of each school year which results in promotions, rankings and tenure. Our education systems of entire countries are ranked based on their performance of an international standardised test! e.g. PISA, PIRLS. Today, our education system operates as Thorndike intended.

  • Above average = you are rewarded
  • Below average = condescending.

Over the past century, we have perfected education system and as Rose suggests, “it runs like a well-oiled machine squeezing out every possibility.” We may believe that our teachers can meet the needs of children over a longer period of time, and we would obviously aspire towards this as teachers, but to consider that it is possible in a single lesson – particularly under observation – is downright ludicrous!

Let’s the pop the bubble please.

  1. Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli, University of Virginia – All Together Now?
  2. High Achieving Students – Fordham Institute, 2008.
  3. Education Week article, Differentiation Doesn’t Work, 2015.
  4. Video: Differentiated Instruction by EducaitonNext, 2010
  5.  From laws of learning to a science of values: Efficiency and morality in Thorndyke’s educational psychology“. American Psychologist 53 (10): 1152, Beatty, Barbara (1998).

12 thoughts on “We Need To Pop The Differentiation Bubble!

  1. Very honest. I’m retired Y6 (Thank God) but miss the children a lot.
    We need to revisit the definition of ‘differentiation’ if teachers are not to be set up to fail.
    Yes, you can address the individual child’s needs, but certainly not all the time. To believe otherwise is hogwash, I’m afraid, but the profession is used to hogwash coming from those in government who become instant experts on education the morning after they’re placed in post.
    Honesty time. Within each lesson my content was broadly divided into top, middle and bottom. Disgraceful, isn’t it. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t addressing individual children, but not all in each lesson, which is totally impractical and don’t let anyone tell you any different. It worked ok for me and the children for 25 years, including the days when it was me and 35. I believe I had the reputation of being a good teacher – think the children and the parents thought so,, and I’ll certainly settle for that…………… ask them……….

    1. Thanks Bob for sharing – as teachers we also do not help ourselves (because we cannot actually meet every child’s needs), but we try by doing things which set us and the kids up to fail; we tell kids who can’t reach the top grades, look at this, create your own version, or go and find this online and do this, do that…. when in fact what we think is that ‘we are differentiating’, when in fact what we are doing, is making it more difficult for less-able kids to be successful. It’s one example, but what we would all actually benefit from doing, is choosing one thing for one child to do better at a time, rather than every child, do all these things all of the time.

  2. I read a book years ago, I cannot remember the title off the top of my head, that had posters with key points on every other page. One of the pages had “A good teacher reaches 80% of the students in their class every lesson, a great teacher reaches 80% of the students in their lessons but a different 80% every lesson”.
    That has always stuck with me.

  3. Ross, an interesting journey through differentiation. Surely as teachers we should be striving to meet the needs of all our learners every lesson? Is it possible to do this if we redefine differentiation and categorise it into differentiation by Pace, Assessment, Resource, Task and Support (this is not exhaustive by makes a nice acronym – Differentiation by ‘PARTS’)
    Could it be argued that by employing these different categories of differentiation we should be able to meet needs of our learners?
    One further observation is on your swimming analogy – your son has been placed in a ‘set’ for swimming. The club has differentiated on his needs, if they hadn’t he could find himself in the main pool with club swimmers in the deep end. Whilst we need to stretch our students this might not be the best way of helping them ‘to swim’ so differentiation can happen via curriculum structure too quite successfully.

  4. Interesting article. Here are some thoughts about each numbered paragraph.
    1) I agree about learning to swim outside of the pool. Situated learning is more effective. For the triangle analogy, the teachers should have probed for prior knowledge and skills. As per Graham Nuthall, teachers don’t do this often enough.
    2) Teacher training should use learning activities that reinforce the learning activities you want teachers to use with students. There is a reason that other industries don’t look to education for help with adult learning.
    3) “We are not really sure what we are differentiating”. Differentiated learning is more possible than ever with EdTech tools to manage the diverse paths students take to reach the learning goal(s). With relatively little effort, teachers can let students differentiate on the (a) content, (b) the learning activities/process, and (c) the culminating event (assessment).
    4) Teachers don’t have enough data to accurately report on learning. Students aren’t given enough performance tasks. Imagine trying to assess an athelete without the benefit of results from actually competing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.