In Why Knowledge Matters, ED Hirsch Jr sets out the case against differentiated instruction, saying, “the attempt to individualize the content of the language arts curriculum has been a quixotic idea that has put teachers under enormous pressure to achieve the impossible.” He explains further:

When a teacher is attending to the individual needs of one student  in a class of twenty, nineteen are not receiving the teacher’s attention. all sorts of techniques conspire to obscure that fact – group work, isolated seatwork on boring work sheets, and “independent study’ with choice of books from the leveled-reader bin.(p. 72)

In What If Everything You Know About Education Is Wrong? I referred to differentiation as a ‘dark art’ and claimed that, “Of all the impossible tasks expected of poor, overworked teachers, differentiation is one of the most troublesome.”

So what exactly is differentiation? Ideally, instruction is supposed to be customised for every student: everyone should receive a unique curriculum that meets their individual and unique needs. Teachers produce tailor-made assignments or provide the specific one-on-one help that enables every child to achieve their potential. If this sounds unrealistically onerous to you, then you’re not alone. Perhaps it sounds more reasonable to say that differentiation is a process of acknowledging that every child is different and treating them accordingly. Even this leads to overworked, overstretched teachers feeling guilty about not being able to do the impossible. Author and teacher 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.”[i] American education writer James Delisle is even more uncompromising: “Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students.”[ii] (p. 319-320)

Weighed against all this invective, we have the 2015 PISA test results which found that ‘adaptive instruction’ was one of the approaches most positively correlated with student performance. In fact, next to ensuring students are from wealthy backgrounds, adaptive instruction is the most positively correlated factor with achievement.

Students were asked to read the following statements and say whether they ‘never or almost never happened’, happened in ‘some lessons’, ‘many lessons’, or in ‘every or almost every lesson’:

  • The teacher adapts the lesson to my class’s needs and knowledge.
  • The teacher provides individual help when a student has difficulties understanding a topic or task.
  • The teacher changes the structure of a lesson on a topic most students find difficult to understand.

Only about 16% of students said their teachers did these things in every or most lessons, with about 30% reporting it as regular practice. Interestingly, out of all the countries that took part in PISA, the UK only places 15th for adaptive instruction, below UAE, Bulgaria and Costa Rica.

This, I think, is something that every teacher will probably view as intuitively correct, no matter their ideological stripe. I’ve certainly never encountered anyone who thinks lessons shouldn’t be adapted in response to students’ needs. But, is this the same as what most teachers understand differentiation to be? I didn’t think it was, so I conducted a quick Twitter poll:

Turns out I was dead wrong. This result indicates this really is what teachers understand as differentiation, which came as a pleasant surprise. It seems things have moved on from the dark days of ‘all, most, some’ learning objectives and the expectation that teachers should plan at least three different sets of resources for students of different abilities. The ‘index of adaptive instruction’, represents what I would call ‘good teaching’. Clearly a teacher who pitches lesson content above or beneath their classes’ needs and knowledge is unlikely to be effective. Likewise, the idea that a teacher might refuse to help a student who has difficulties understanding a task or topic seems extraordinary (Although I’ve seen, and even been advised to do, this in the name of developing students’ resilience!) The final point, changing the structure of a lesson if students aren’t getting it, should only need to happen if you pitched it wrongly in the first place, but a bull-headed tendency to plough on regardless is the sure sign of a novice with no back up strategy to hand.

To be clear, these things are entirely sensible and, I would have thought, not likely to add to teachers’ workload. All that’s required is that teachers are flexible and skilled enough to be able to veer off-piste to collect up confused students as and when required. So, death to the tyrannical old approaches to differentiation and viva adaptive instruction!

[i] Francis Gilbert quoted in Phil Beadle, How to Teach, p. 190.

[ii] James Delisle, Differentiation Doesn’t Work