Of all the impossible tasks expected of poor, over-worked teachers, differentiation is the most troublesome. Why? Because on the one hand, if you did it properly every lesson you’d be reduced to a dribbling wreck in less than a week. T’other hand though is that it’s really really important. Therein lies our dilemma: we know we should be doing (a lot) more of it but we just don’t have the time or energy to do it properly. Francis Gilbert says on the subject, “The whole thing is a duplicitous gimmick…In reality schools just do not have the resources, time or space in the curriculum to implement it.”

So, what’s to do? Well, aside from feeling debilitatingly guilty, a first step is to be clear on why we should be doing it. The plight of our most vulnerable students must be akin to me being confronted by differential calculus all day, every day. For years. And years. My response would almost certainly not be a productive, growth mindset one! The impact on self esteem for students given incomprehensible work to do cannot be underestimated: it’s not going to make anyone feel especially good about themselves. And it’s not much better for our most able learners; bored out of their brains and picking their noses while they wait for their ‘slower’ colleagues to catch up and being given a “challenge” worksheet as a punishment for finishing too quickly. Not good either.

So what exactly is differentiation then?

It might sound self evident, but it seems reasonable to point out that it is a process of acknowledging that every child is different and treating them accordingly. In terms of classroom application, the first thing that even a cursory study of the subject reveals is that there are various different ways one can do about differentiating. They are:

1. By assessment
2. By outcome
3. By support
4. By task

Now, interestingly, not all forms of differentiation were created equal and there are some surprisingly easy pitfalls to avoid. Let’s run through them one by one.

1. Differentiating by assessment is arguably just formative assessment by another name. This is a good thing. Various researchers have confirmed that formative assessment and feedback is one of the most beneficial things any teacher can be doing and Hattie places it right at the top of his Table of Effect Sizes. It will mean that you are able to work out exactly what level your students need to be differentiated to and ensures that you can praise the effort of the kids in your care to help foster that all important growth mindset. Conclusion: do it.

2. This usually involves some combination of the “All must… Most should… Some could…” learning objective. Teachers can sometimes fool themselves into thinking that it’s especially worth doing if they attach grades or levels to these statements when in actually they are in danger of fixing their students’ beliefs about their ability (or perceived lack thereof) and ensuring that they’re too frightened to try anything that looks hard cos that’d mean they’d fail. Again. The truth of the matter is that differentiating in this way is lazy and ineffective. It basically announces that you’re prepared to accept the shoddy work that “all” the students are capable of. It is, as Phil Beadle says, “a definition of low expectations”. Conclusion: don’t do it unless you’ve really thought it though and are trying something like learning continuums.

3. Come on, be serious: there’s 30 kids in your class. How on earth are you going to able to support all the students that need it in any meaningful way? You’re not. Maybe you’re fortunate enough to have a classroom assistant in your lesson and maybe it seems tempting to be able to saddle them with the neediest, most vulnerable child in the room while you get on with your lesson, but is this fair on anyone? The hapless TA will struggle gamely but will probably feel utterly frustrated with the misuse of their time and the “special needs” child will be further isolated from the rest of class as their self esteem plummets due to the fact they’re perceived as needing someone to hold their pen and explain the big words. Even worse, they may very well develop what Dweck calls “learned helplessness” due to their dependance on a particular individual. This is not a rant against TAs – they’re hugely under appreciated and for the most part do a wonderful job in very difficult circumstances for practically no money. A much more effective way to use your TA is to team teach with them whilst ensuring some form of peer support. There’s tons of evidence to show that assuming the role of teacher helps students to deepen their understanding of a subject. Even better it provides a safe way for kids to take risks without the fear of being ridiculed for ‘getting it wrong’. Best of all, it doesn’t require much effort on a day to day basis. As long as you’ve worked out your seating plan to ensure that students are paired up for sound educational reasons, all will be well. Conclusion: yes to peer support, no to teacher support.

4. Differentiation by task is the one we all hate and feel so guilty about. Yes, your lessons will be better if you do it, yes your students will learn more effectively, but my goodness, you’ll suffer for it. In order to properly differentiate by task, one has to design several distinct lessons which students can access at different levels. This might involve producing a variety of different resources appropriate for the different levels of ability represented in your class. Please note that differentiating by task should not ever mean word searches or other “busy work”. These sorts of activities do not ever result in learning however useful they might be for behaviour management. I would argue that the only manageable way to approach this type of differentiation is to plan well thought out, properly differentiated questions (try SOLO taxonomy rather than Bloom’s) can be really effective in ensuring all are suitably challenged. Conclusion: effective, differentiated questioning should be part of your practice on a daily basis but the faff and hassle involved in creating endlessly varied worksheets should be reserved for observed lessons.

In no way do I claim that my thoughts are exhaustive – please feel free to remind me about what I’ve forgotten and point out where you think I’ve gone astray. I do, however, hope this in some way helps folks to navigate though the thickets and gorse of what’s come to be a particularly thorny subject.

Apologies for the over-extended metaphor.

If you found that at all interesting, you may enjoy my book.

Related posts:

What’s the point of homework?
The joy of marking
Building challenge: differentiation what’s quick and works