I am sceptical about many common approaches to ‘differentiation’ in education. This is because I worry about the practicalities of implementing these approaches, the basis on which content is differentiated and the possibility that differentiation might compound difficulties that children already have. These are genuine concerns.
However, whenever I write about this issue, I find myself criticised in strong terms. It is suggested that teachers have a legal duty to differentiate school work for students with a disability and that my scepticism about differentiation is therefore dangerous.
This is an odd argument because differentiation is a common classroom practice, whether or not students have been identified as having a disability. For instance, the video below has been produced by the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) as an illustration of their guidelines. It involves a teacher organising a ‘guided reading’ session where the class is split into different groups on the basis of a number of factors that the teacher describes. These groups are then given different tasks to complete. Disability is not mentioned at all.
The teacher is clearly a dedicated professional who is working very hard but it is this kind of differentiation that I am sceptical about.
Interestingly, disability has become something of a hot topic in Australia in the past week. The “Gonski 2.0” proposals have brought into focus the idea of needs-based funding. As Misty Adoniou points out in The Conversation, this will be a challenge because, “Each state and sector defines disability differently. The government says it will come up with a national definition. But it does not have one yet.”
This is not just a problem for funding. If the law really does state that teachers must differentiate for students with a disability then a definition of disability might help.
This may be resolved if the Australian Labour Party succeed in their call for a Royal Commission into disability support. However, for now the situation remains confused.
It might help educators if we can distinguish between a learning disability and a learning difficulty. A document publish by the ACT government in Canberra provides some useful insights.
“Students with learning difficulties underachieve academically for a wide range of reasons, including factors such as: sensory impairment (weaknesses in vision or hearing); severe behavioural, psychological or emotional issues; English as a second language or dialect (ESL or ESD); high absenteeism; ineffective instruction; or, inadequate curricula. These students have the potential to achieve at age-appropriate levels once provided with programs that incorporate appropriate support and evidence-based instruction.
Students with learning disabilities have difficulties in specific areas of academic achievement as a result of impairment in one or more of the cognitive processes related to learning. One of the defining features of a specific learning disability is that the difficulty continues to exist, despite appropriate instruction and intervention.”
This distinction is central to my argument about whether we should accommodate or address a particular issue. If a child possesses a learning difficulty then that child needs high quality instruction to address that difficulty. If he or she struggles with writing then a writing intervention may be needed. Differentiated tasks that ask or allow such children to do less writing – a feature of differentiation approaches that are promoted in Australia such as UDL – will not address this issue and will lead, over time, to a widening gap between such children and their peers.
This does not mean that children with writing difficulties should be treated exactly the same as their peers. They may take part in withdrawal groups or make use of in-class supports. If that is what you mean by ‘differentiation’ then I have no issue with it. My criticism is specifically aimed at those forms of differentiation that lead to multiple activities taking place within one classroom and that result in a child opting out of something that they find difficult e.g. by making an audio recording rather than writing a passage.
For students with a disability as defined above then there is clearly a case for making accommodations. We wouldn’t expect a child who is blind to read from a standard textbook. Similarly, if a child possesses a neurological condition that means that he or she cannot learn to read or will never be able to read at an age-appropriate level then we would wish to make accommodations for this. Perhaps he or she could be given an audio recording or other alternative presentation of the content.