Differentiation’s slippery slope


I have recently discovered that some people on Twitter don’t want to engage in my arguments but instead simply wish to repeat points over my head as they play to the gallery. One of these points is particularly interesting because it is a subtle manipulation of my views on differentiation; a bait and switch.

In my recent post on the evidence for differentiation, I noted that ‘differentiation’ is an amorphous term. I also suggested that I use certain forms of it in my own teaching. I criticised specific kinds of differentiation typified by Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and the Differentiated Instruction techniques of Carol Ann Tomlinson, both of which have been promoted by academics in Australia. As Tomlinson explains, in her approach:

“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.”

UDL is similar and stresses the element of student choice of classroom tasks. In my post, I raised two quite reasonable concerns about such forms of differentiation. Firstly, if a child struggles with writing then a teacher applying these principles may give that child less writing to complete or allow that child to choose to complete less writing. If this happens over time across a number of subjects then this child is likely to fall further behind his or her peers in writing. The same could be said of any other academic skill. Secondly, orchestrating the kind of differentiation where students complete multiple activities in a single class is inefficient for teachers to plan and deliver.

In my post, I noted the lack of empirical evidence to support the idea that this form of differentiation leads to better educational outcomes.

Unfortunately, some people chose to interpret my comments entirely through the lens of disability. Let me be explicit: Tomlinson and the UDL developers are promoting their forms of differentiation as a general strategy and not one to be reserved for students with a disability.

Once this strawman had been erected, a number of people repeatedly and persistently claimed that it is illegal to refuse to make accommodations for students with a disability under the Australian Disability Standards for Education (DSE).

I have read the standards and I do not think that they require any teacher to make use of the forms of differentiation typified by UDL or Tomlinson. Instead, they require teachers to make reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities. Such accommodations are defined alongside the limits of what is considered reasonable.

Let me be clear: If a child has a cognitive or physical impairment that means that he or she cannot learn to write then it would be cruel and absurd to insist on that child writing. However, I suspect that this is relatively rare. More often, I would expect to encounter a child who has difficulty in learning to write. If I were to make accommodations for such a child then it might be by providing additional help with writing, providing a writing frame or offering a similar support. UDL is clearly flawed in my view because I would not give that child a choice to opt out of writing.

Now let us for the sake of argument assume that I am wrong and that the DSE really does require all Australian teachers to use a UDL-style approach to differentiation. If that were the case then I would argue that the law was wrong. This is a perfectly respectable position to take in a free society. For instance, I personally believe that same-sex couples should be able to marry, something that is not currently permitted by law in Australia. I am not going to be convinced that I am wrong by someone repeatedly stating that the law does not allow it.

Please feel free to engage me on the substance of my argument. Some already have engaged constructively. I am often wrong and I may well be wrong about this. However, I will no longer engage with those who are seeking to frame this discussion in a way that misrepresents my position.


17 thoughts on “Differentiation’s slippery slope

  1. “Firstly, if a child struggles with writing then a teacher applying these principles may give that child less writing to complete or allow that child to choose to complete less writing”. Good sounds, sin so many do not understand it.

  2. Jennifer says:

    ANother consideration here is the purpose of the task where you might use differentiation. Say the child struggles with writing but the aim of the task is test comprehension of the reasons behind an historical event – do you effectively penalise the child becuase of thier writing difficulty, or do you allow alternate response forms and provide additional support for writing elsewhere?

    • Stan says:

      Even in this case wouldn’t the writing practice take priority? Your example is a student with no disability who can answer a history question but can’t write well. Having the history question serve as writing practice seems like a win.
      If they are at the point where the history grades are important and still can’t provide written answers then it just seems more urgent that they focus writing. History is important but not as important as being able to write.

      • I suppose to its a matter of handwriting vs writing process. Some children just need to type rather than the large sensory processing load that handwriting has. I taught a child with only one hand and we allowed him to type…but when that became too laborious we scribed for him.

      • Stan says:

        We are only talking about students without disability. By definition that is students who only need teaching by normal approaches but for some reason have fallen behind their classmates.

  3. It is a shame that you have blocked me on Twitter so we cant continue this important discussion. Your question couldn’t be answered as it is not possible to provide empirical evidence about a method that ha so many variables between classrooms. I hope that one day I will be able to continue this discussion

    • Michael Pye says:

      dukeyjk62 I am a little confused about one of your posts. Did the student with one hand have limited function in the good hand? Handwriting with one hand requires the page to be held firm with a counterweight or device. Typing requires two for speed requiring an adjustment in time/quantity. .

      Why does handwriting have a larger sensory processing load once mastered (was it not here) unless you are trying to do it concurrently with something else. (I.e note taking) which I assume runs counter to Cognitive load theory.

      I don’t have an issue with word processing over handwriting or even with using a tape recording to record thoughts/voice to text as these require editing to make sense. I have taught students who are undeniably unable to read or write though they are rare and usually possess significant general rather then specific difficulties (possible artifact of my practice).

      This does not seem to be the case in your example. If there were other factors then your choice of example seems unhelpful.
      What have I misunderstood?

      • Thanks for asking me to clarify. The young man used a one handed keyboard. He shot off his good hand cleaning a rifle. To write with one non preferred hand was tiring and limited his automaticity. Examples of one handed keyboards can be found here http://onehandedkeyboard.com/

  4. Michael Pye says:

    Thanks for the link. I found the text underneath quite interesting considering this conversation. Did you deliberately choose the link because of the Personal message from Lilly Walters – One Hand Typist or was it just the first page showing one?

    She seems to be supporting Greg’s position in general. (That lots of practice is needed).

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