How can we change the differentiation narrative?
It worries me that so many teachers still think ‘differentiation’ means they need to plan radically different activities for pupils within the same class. This not only causes unnecessary workload but it can actually hold pupils back.
Recently a group of Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) were telling me that everyone on their Initial Teacher Training (ITT) course had been ordered to include a ‘stretch task’ on their PowerPoints or worksheets. Without it, they would not qualify as teachers. After I had picked my jaw off the floor, I reassured them that they would be hearing no such nonsense from me, or anyone at my school. Stretch tasks would never be necessary. In fact, I actively discourage them. It’s the first step towards ditching the wrong kind of differentiation.
Here are my 4 top tips for ditching the differentiation madness.
1. Don’t bolt on challenge – build it in
At their worst, stretch tasks ask pupils to do things which are largely unrelated to the learning intention of the lesson.
I once saw a Year 7 history lesson where the teacher intended their pupils to understand the sequence of events at the Battle of Hastings. The stretch task on the board invited pupils to write and perform an interview of William the Conqueror after the battle, asking him how he thought the battle had gone.
The well-meaning teacher had clearly spent a long time thinking of a fun way for pupils to apply a bit of their new knowledge. In reality, the task really relied mostly on pupils’ ability to create a role play. I’m not saying role play never has a place in history lessons. But I would much rather that learning time was devoted to securing understanding of the historical events themselves, at least initially.
Those few who did jump ahead to the ‘stretch’ spent hardly any of the lesson learning how William the Conqueror earned his imposing title on the fields of Hastings. They left their diagrams of the battle largely unfinished, wasting a valuable dual coding opportunity that would have got the knowledge stuck in their heads. Instead, they spent a good half an hour applying fragmentary knowledge and, in their performances as William, trying out more-or-less dodgy French accents.
2. Plan for the top and scaffold from there
The simple fact is, anyone who feels the need to bolt-on a ‘stretch task’ hasn’t made the main activity sufficiently challenging. They have pitched for the middle, condescended to the bottom and stuck on something to keep the top busy. A clear sign that this mindset prevails is the stubborn persistence of the dreaded ALL/MOST/SOME outcomes.
If the teacher above had just planned for ‘all’ to understand and retain the knowledge of what happened at the Battle of Hastings, that would have been enough. ‘Some’ would have managed to do this without any further teacher intervention, besides checking they were doing what they had been asked to do. The ‘all’ and ‘most’ might have required a bit of scaffolding.
But scaffolding is often as straightforward as the teacher giving further explanation or live modelling. It can be as simple as modifying our questioning, asking one pupil in one way and another pupil in another way.
So why do so many of us feel like this isn’t enough?
3. Stop thinking differentiation = different routes through the lesson
I’ve been there, done that, filled in the lesson plan. Once upon a time I too made sure I filled those boxes: the ones marked ALL/MOST/SOME. Or LAPS/MAPS/HAPS (lower, middle and higher attaining pupils).
And let’s not forget, perhaps most time-wastingly of all: Visual/Auditory/Kinaesthetic.
Section 5 of the Teaching Standards states that teachers must adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils. The key word here for me is ‘adapt’. Not ‘re-invent’ or ‘make-something-entirely-different’.
Perhaps the misconception around differentiation lies within the word itself: DIFFERENTiation. The d-word itself is enshrined in the teaching standards: Teachers must know when and how to differentiate appropriately, using approaches which enable pupils to be taught effectively.
Nowhere does it dictate that teachers must create three (or more) different versions of the same lesson. The plural on ‘approaches’ could be interpreted this way. But this could just as easily refer to adapting teaching to the topic or age group.
Instead, teachers should expect pupils to all do the same thing with some doing it better than others. After all, isn’t that what they will have to do in the end of course exams.
4. Ditch the guilt
The differentiation myth persists. Is this because some senior leaders and Ofsted inspectors still accept it as conventional wisdom with no basis in evidence? Certainly, it’s something Ofsted’s Sean Harford is keen to see disappear and recent inspector training has begun to address the issue.
But even with leaders and inspectors giving teachers ‘permission’ to rethink differentiation, the teacher martyr complex remains an impediment.
Many of us feel guilty if we aren’t flogging ourselves for our pupils. But pupils’ needs are not being met if their teachers are exhausted, having stayed up until midnight creating endless permutations of worksheets.
To keep our workload manageable and get the best out of every pupil these are the steps we need to take:
- We need to stop bolting-on ‘stretch tasks’. Instead, we need to build in the challenge.
- We need to say no to outcomes: ALL/MOST/SOME, VAK, etc. Instead, we need to just give everyone the same success criteria and, if required, scaffold from the top down.
- We need to stop thinking DIFFERENTiation = different activities, worksheets, etc.
- We need to ditch our guilt.
Differentiation is a waste of time and a road to nowhere. It is the word itself that gets in the way of learning. The best thing to do is stop using it.