Misunderstanding Differentiation

I am a critic of the notion of differentiation, yet part of the problem is that it is so poorly defined. There are many practices that you could describe as ‘differentiation’ that I employ daily, for instance in the choices that I make when asking students to demonstrate their work on the board or by allowing a subgroup of my class to continue with an activity while I review the homework task with the others. These are practical and pragmatic approaches to recognising the different needs of students in my class.

However, ‘differentiation’ encapsulates a much larger set of practices. In an article for The Conversation, Linda Graham and Kathy Cologon set out to explain the meaning of differentiation for the lay reader. They begin by claiming that differentiation is poorly understood. In the passage below, they link to a speech by U.K. education minister Nick Gibb and then two articles of mine in order to demonstrate these misconceptions:

“This lack of understanding is reflected in criticism describing it as “dumbing down” by “asking different students to complete different activities in the same class”.

Actually, differentiation is about teachers providing choice to avoid discriminating against students who may be disadvantaged by “one size fits all” approaches. This does not mean creating different lessons for, or “simultaneously individually” instructing, every student.”

I might be missing something here, but I’ve searched the Gibb speech for the phrase ‘dumbing down’ and I can’t find it. Instead, he mentions me in the speech and refers to the fact that countries that perform well in PISA don’t tend to differentiate all that much. This claim derives from a questionnaire (known as ‘TALIS’) that the OECD send out to teachers in member countries. One of the questions asks lower secondary teachers how often they “give different work to the students who have difficulty learning and/or to those who can advance faster”. I have noted that high-performing PISA countries tend to do less of this than lower performing ones.

The second link refers to an article I wrote for the TES. The authors seem to be making the claim that I have misunderstood differentiation if I think it is about asking different students to complete different activities in the same class. In fact, this is how differentiation is commonly conceived. Probably the world’s foremost proponent of differentiated instruction is Carol Ann Tomlinson of the University of Virginia. She has written extensively on differentiation and one of the authors of the Conversation article has recommended reading her work on this topic. Tomlinson is also a co-author of an article cited as supporting evidence in the Conversation piece.

Tomlinson clearly believes that asking different students to complete different activities is a key differentiation strategy. In this article, Tomlinson writes:

“Teachers can differentiate at least four classroom elements based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile: (1) content—what the student needs to learn or how the student will get access to the information; (2) process—activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content; (3) products—culminating projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit; and (4) learning environment—the way the classroom works and feels.”

In the same article, Tomlinson makes a point that is worrying to those of us who are sceptical about differentiation. One means of differentiation could be, “putting text materials on tape.” Why would you do this? It sounds a lot like ‘watering down content’ and yet the watering down of content is, apparently, a misconception about differentiation. You might perhaps choose such a strategy for a student with a reading difficulty. But the result of this would be the student doing less reading than her peers; hardly the best strategy for catching-up. As a one-off, this is unlikely to have much effect but as a systematic process over time, the potential “Matthew Effect” of differentiation is a concern.

Matthew Effect

And did you notice the reference to differentiation according to “learning profile”? This is about assessing students’ learning styles and ‘intelligences’ as well as gender and culture. This article by Tomlinson explains the process. I probably don’t need to point out to my readers that there is no evidence to support the practice of differentiating lessons to students’ supposed learning styles and I recall that even Howard Gardner, the originator of multiple intelligences theory, has criticised attempts to apply this model to education.

The third link refers to my point that, “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.” Perhaps I did go too far here. Programs of differentiation do not tend to attempt to do this. They try to meet individual needs by giving a range of options, but not usually an individual option for each student. As Tomlinson notes,  this was tried in the 1970s and was found to be completely impractical. The current model of differentiation therefore represents a retreat from this ideal, albeit one that I still suggest poses immense practical difficulties.

Despite linking to my stuff, the Conversation article does not address the evidence that I present. I have already mentioned circumstantial evidence from PISA scores but there is another study that cuts to the heart of the matter. In 2005, Tomlinson and others reported on a large-scale attempt to implement a systematic approach to differentiated instruction in schools in three U.S. states. Usually, such studies tend to show positive results because there is an effect of merely being involved in some kind of intervention. Such interventions tend to represent the best possible scenario for implementation because researchers are available to advise and teachers and students are enthused by being part of a project (this is why John Hattie sets an effect size threshold of d=0.40 rather than d=0.00). However, the researchers could find few significant effects of the differentiated instruction intervention. They noted that differentiation is a complex and difficult thing and pointed out the many pressures on teachers and the fact that they often didn’t implement the intervention properly.

We might wonder what would have happened if differentiation had been implemented properly. But we might equally conclude that this is evidence of how, even under the best possible conditions, differentiated instruction is simply an impractical approach. It may seem attractive to theoreticians but practitioners realise that this is not a zero-sum game. If teachers spend more time planning – which they will have to do if they are to plan a range of different learning pathways – then what should they do less of? If a teacher is interacting with one subgroup within a class then she cannot be interacting with the rest of the class. So there are losses as well as gains and the losses could well outweigh the gains.

Tomlinson has an answer for the latter point; we should teach students to require less teacher input.

“…teachers in differentiated classes understand the need to help students take increasing responsibility for their own growth. It’s easier sometimes in large classrooms for a teacher to tell students everything rather than guiding them to think on their own, accept significant responsibility for learning and develop a sense of pride in what they do. In a differentiated classroom, it’s necessary for learners to be active in making and evaluating decisions. Teaching students to share responsibility enables a teacher to work with varied groups or individuals for portions of the day.”

This is an interesting idea and it would be good to have some supporting evidence.

And evidence is the main thing lacking in the Conversation article. There are no empirical studies supporting differentiation, even if my own articles are linked multiple times. There is a citation of a special education study that may or may not be related to a particular differentiation strategy. There is a link to a whole load of papers on “Universal Design for Learning” published via the “National Centre on Universal Design for Learning” website. From the summary, it appears that these are mainly related to the idea that increasing students’ choice over the tasks they complete increases engagement. This could be a part of a differentiation approach but I am sceptical about it and with good reason. The key issue is whether these methods enable students to learn more and, judging by the summary, it looks like this hasn’t been tested.

Instead, the case for differentiation is made with the aid of a clip from a movie and a warning that we all have to differentiate anyway because it is the law.

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17 Comments on “Misunderstanding Differentiation”

  1. I’ve always been mystified by the range of differentiations. An observer once said in a knowing voice ‘ah you’re using differentiation by outcome’. I thought ‘ oh am I? Is that good or bad? I have no idea! I’ve only been teaching for 20+ yrs’

    • chrismwparsons says:

      I say to our teachers: “If all your class are able to access work which for them is challenging, then whatever differentiation approach you are using must be working anyway. The end.”

    • Oggi says:

      Differentiation by outcome used to be good when I started teaching but now it is bad because you are not visibly stretching the more able. For observations the honest answer would be “sorry, your question cannot be answered before I decide whether I like you or not.”

  2. chrismwparsons says:

    Good analysis Greg. I’ve approached this from a different angle recently: https://steppingbackalittle.wordpress.com/2016/02/17/all-hail-adaptation-rather-than-differentiation/
    I think semantics make a big difference

  3. David says:

    I ran into this when our school brought in consultants to introduce to us the Danielson teacher observation system, which is very widely used in the US. This system is premised on constructivism, differentiation and learning styles–thus it is insidious in that it makes teacher observations and the forms that go along with them premised on things that are baloney.

    When I finally stopped wiggling in my chair and pointed out that teaching to learning styles is NOT supported by the research (mentioning Willingham), I was told that “this whole system is evidence based”. That was it. End of covnersation. Someone else asked about differentiation and we got the canned “well, many things are differentiated, from allowing students to choose their own topics on projects to being given choices of which problem sets to respond to in math.” In other words, hooey.

  4. As used in education discussions I regard the word “differentiation” to be a synonym for “discrimination” — as in putting students into different groups and treating them differently according to group membership.

  5. Brian says:

    The whole topic for me is nonsense.

    I am a teacher. I teach a class. That class is comprised a number of individuals who are all different in some ways and similar in others.

    When teaching a class of 30, I am teaching 30 individual learners. Each learns by constructing thie own knowledge in response to my teaching. I don’t have the time to tailor specific transactions to every indivdual so I make a few generalisations and then attempt to mop up anyone who doesn’t understand.

    If 15 learners had difficulties with hearing and the other half difficulties with seeing, I would design the lesson accordingly. The extent to which I can cater for individual differences with the resources at my disposal is a question for me as a teacher.

    What works for me on a particular day with a particular topic and a particular day in a particular classroom would not I would have thought had much of an influence in a different class in a different country with a different topic with a different room etc.

    Trying to identify generalisable panaceas that may be applied by anyone, anywhere at any time seems a bit daft and just keeps researchers in employment.

    I differentiate but I don’t believe my differentiation has ever been informed by what an expert told me was a good way to differentiate according to research.

    As for re-engineering the process. If I can enable learners to make decisions about their learning which are as good as the decisions I make about their learning then I don’t need evidence to tell me that is a good thing. For me, I know when a student is able to make better decisions than I can, and that is one of my goals as a teacher, to produce such a situation just as my father did when I was young.

    Research…..pesearch………………Research is for atoms and covalent bonds and all of that pointless nonsense. These are people (human beings) we are talking about here.

    • chrismwparsons says:

      “Like”

    • Andy says:

      Uncommon common sense. Thank you.

      • Michael Pye says:

        No it is common poor sense. Research has limitations and is often misused. Concluding it is useless is not even supported from Brian’s points. We do have some clear ideas about what is more likely to work and even more evidence of what does not work effectively (read some of the other posts on this website) The issue is on communicating these ideas. Science and maths is poorly understood by both politicians non-specialist teachers and school leaders in general.

        Please don’t spread or congratulate anti-expert and anti-knowledge memes. If you don’t understand the relevance of these discussions try asking some specific questions that Greg or others can reply to.

  6. […] it highly personalised. He links to another article in The Conversation, one that I have criticised here. My basic point is that ‘differentiation’ is poorly defined. Far from misunderstanding […]

  7. […] [You can read a more thorough discussion of differentiation here] […]

  8. […] some literature that showed that this approach was effective (I disagree and you might want to read my analysis). They then asked around, found two schools who were implementing differentiation effectively and […]

  9. […] It has become something of a truism in education that we should not seek to march students through an age-based curriculum. There is a wide range of ability within any year-group. As Geoff Masters notes in a recent piece for The Conversation, this could be anything up to six school years. So it seems obvious that we need to cater to these individual needs rather than deliver a standardised curriculum regardless. This reasoning has some merit although I do believe that many approaches to differentiation create significant practical problems. […]


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