The bad idea that holds teachers back

We have all probably heard a common trope along the lines that, ‘I don’t teach content, I teach children.’ Another such example popped-up in my timeline via @Borto74:

students curriculum

It is an odd idea to emphasise. I would expect that any teacher who is doing the job that he or she is paid for will be teaching students the curriculum. So why does this come up?

It is to do with the cult of the individual that permeates our schools. Even supposedly sober commentators such as Ben Jensen and Jacqueline Magee perpetuate this idea. Whilst noting the profound difficulties required in attempting to meet every student’s individual needs, they do nothing to dispel the notion that this is the way to go.

Differentiating work is difficult and time-consuming. It can also potentially lead to invidious outcomes as students who are identified as struggling get watered-down content, increasing the achievement gap. It is not something that higher performing states seem to do. The graph below might come as a bit of a shock to anyone who thinks that differentiation is proven to be best practice:

PISA vs TALIS graph

I write about differentiation at some length in my new ebook. The evidence just isn’t there to support the idea. It seems truthy enough that catering to individual needs will be better for students but it ignores the realities of the classroom; a teacher cannot simultaneously individually instruct 30 students. Even when researchers have tried to make it work, they have complained that the teachers weren’t doing it right. So it is either something that works if you have particularly talented teachers who can implement it – although this has not been demonstrated – or it is an idea that doesn’t work at all. You decide.

What is clear is that it is not an approach that is grounded in solid evidence.


20 thoughts on “The bad idea that holds teachers back

  1. Since I don’t follow you and I’m blocked from seeing your tweets I’d appreciate it you did not quote me in your blog. It is underhanded and unprofessional to do so in my opinion.


    1. We tell kids at school not to write anything on their social media they wouldn’t want the world to see.

      Really adults shouldn’t need to be told.

      1. On the graph, there is indicated 0.226 for something, which must be R squared – so r would be about -0.48, which is technically not “large”, but quite impressive, especially for educational contexts.

      2. I think you get from this data that if you think the correlation is significant the slope supports Greg’s point and if you think the correlation is not significant that alone supports Greg’s point.

        The correlation doesn’t change the outcome for differentiation given it is not free.

        If you don’t like the conclusion a better tack would be to argue the mean pisa score is not a good metric and you want to look at the bottom 10th percentile. But pick you metric before looking at the data.

  2. I’ve been fighting against the myth of differentiation for decades. For a long time, I had to give lip service to it in observations, whilst knowing very well that I was doing better by my students by not giving differentiated work. All the examples I had seen, merely made assumptions about what they couldn’t do, often to the detriment, as you point out, of their actual attainment, year after year. I’m glad I can use ‘mastery’ as a weapon in my arsenal, rightly or wrongly, to demonstrate that ‘I’m teaching this to everyone because everyone has right to this level of education.’ If I need to, I’ll work with those who didn’t grasp it quickly and I’ll push on those who did.

  3. Interesting argument. I would agree that much of the call to differentiate the curriculum is not well grounded in the reality of the classroom. However it is a balance. In terms of teaching children or teaching the curriculum I spent the 2010-2011 in an international school in the Middle East with a lot of British teachers teaching the English National Curriculum and as a Kiwi I found their approach scary. The focus was definitely on teaching the curriculum rather than the child. It was my goal to move them toward an approach that took more account of students and their individual needs. And Greg as you know I could hardly be described as a raving progressive. I never got to put these ideas into practice as Libyian Revolutionaries had other plans for the school.
    I look forward to reading your book.

  4. Differentiation, how can it possible work? How can one teacher cater to all the different learning needs/spreads across the average classroom. Also creates undue pressure on the teacher. I know of one teacher who told me she differentiates very well for all her students abilities. Yet when I asked her to explain how she wrote a “thesis” that was describing one lesson plan on how to teach one small area of maths. I wondered how much more the kids could have covered had she not had to ‘differentiate”. The “thesis contained the words scaffold and entry points over & over…still didn’t ring true to me. An impossible task. So much effort & work with little discernible outcomes.

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