Colour-Coded Differentiation

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Why should we ditch colour-coded worksheets?

We need colour-coded chopping boards in the kitchen because they can prevent cross-contamination between food groups which could potentially cause food poisoning. That makes sense. What we don’t need, are colour-coded differentiated worksheets in the classroom. They make no sense at all.

Educational racism?

We know that no two children are alike but we don’t produce thirty colour-coded worksheets to personalise for tailor-made learning. That’s differentiation madness and would be impractical and a nightmare. But some teachers do colour-code their activity sheets for particular groups based on ability. This is also impractical and hugely divisive.

Why do we treat children as if they are stupid? They see the colour and they know instantly who they are designed for. As Wallace and Kirkman (2014) say in Pimp Your Lesson! “Would you ever stand at the front of the room and shout ‘Can you put your hand up if you aren’t very clever?’ No. So just don’t do it with worksheets.”

Colour-coding has almost become a teacher reflex for differentiation as if that’s the natural thing to do, but it’s not very subtle and children have a very powerful sense of their position in the academic hierarchy. Colour communicates, but not always in a good way. You may as well create some labels and stick them on children’s foreheads.

Colour coding attracts educational racism that is hurtful and damaging to their mental health:

Why continue to colour code?

What is a concern, is that colour-coding gets recommended as a ‘differentiation in action’ strategy for ‘a differentiated classroom’. There is no evidence that differentiation even ‘works’. What could be worse than recommending something that destroys confidence and self-esteem? These are often “superficially assigned” and hugely “disheartening” (Bartlett, 2015).

Children have a firm grasp of who’s who in their class in terms of ability without the need for segregated worksheets adding another layer of prejudice and discrimination. Of course, we need to celebrate difference in our classes. It’s essential we make it clear to children that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and that everyone is of equal value, but that doesn’t involve promoting social segregation by ability groups and colour-codes.

Ability groups are damaging, ineffective and archaic.

Are you teaching with colour blindness?

Colour-coding worksheets and books are often recommended as a way of easing teacher workload.

Fine, I’m all for that but not if it creates an obstacle for pupils. Not only does colour-coding create status divisions it also can be a huge obstacle for colour-blind children. There are around 450,000 school children with colour vision deficiency (CVD) and this is a major disadvantage that seems to get ignored.

Designing lessons for diverse learners does not involve assigning them a colour. True, effective adaptations require sustained development and support but if you want to differentiate a worksheet, just put the child’s name on it.

Sue Cowley (2018) suggests that we can use one worksheet in several ways using the ‘3 column method’. This involves making a central column of questions set at everyone, a left-hand column of easier questions and a right-hand column of harder ones. All pupils have a go at answering three questions in the middle column, then move to the left column if they find them tricky, or the right column if they find them easy.

Colour-coding differentiation isn’t big and it isn’t clever. Children are multi-dimensional learners who benefit from flexible whole-class grouping not being coloured in by their teachers. Stop the silliness and follow the research.

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