Differentiation is a blancmange. Its squishy and amorphous. To some extent, I use differentiation every day by varying my teaching to the needs of different students, but I don’t subscribe to schemes such as Universal Design for Learning or Carol Tomlinson’s widely publicised approaches to differentiation. This is because they lack evidence substantiating their effectiveness.
When I learnt that a group of Australian researchers were conducting a systematic review of differentiation research, I made the following prediction on Twitter:
The amorphous nature of differentiation means that it is repeatedly involved in the education hype cycle:
Differentiation and its hype cycle are going to be a growing problem in Australia because the recent Gonski 2.0 review recommended a form of individualised learning, without specifying the details. All we know about the Gonski panel’s proposals is that students will be learning different content (because imposing a common, age-based curriculum is ‘industrial’), that different students are likely to be learning different content in the same classroom (because the Gonski panel is against ability grouping) and that there will be a set of tests developed to measure what stage individual students are at on various ‘learning progressions’ (which sound similar to England’s axed national curriculum levels).
The Gonski panel’s proposals read a lot like they are promoting some form of differentiation and so some evidence to support these recommendations would be good. And yet, supportive academics writing in The Conversation could only cite one Randomised Controlled Trial showing promising results for a form of differentiation is middle school science. Importantly, in this trial, all students were working to the same set of objectives and yet, according to the Gonski panel’s plan, different students would be working towards different objectives.
I think this highlights some key unresolved tensions hiding inside the differentiation blancmange and we need to sort these out before we can properly test the concept.
Think about a model of differentiation that you are familiar with. Presumably, it is not ability grouping, even if, technically, this is a form of differentiation, because people don’t usually refer to ability grouping in this way. If that is the case, see if you can answer the following questions about your model:
- Are students working to the same learning objectives or different ones?
- If the learning objective is different to the mode of expressing that it has been met – for example, if children are learning about digestion and are showing this through writing – is the mode of expression varied for different students or are they supported to express their learning through the same mode?
- Are students working individually or in groups?
- How is the decision made on how to differentiate the content? Is a standardised test, a teacher-created test or another form of teacher assessment used or do students decide based upon their preferences and interests?
- Is the entire content differentiated or are there common elements that can be taught to the whole class?
This is only a start, but already we can see that the possible interpretations of differentiation are vast. Ideally, we should manipulate each of these possibilities in small-scale experiments and determine the effect of each. In many cases, this has already been done. For instance, there is research available showing that when students make choices on how to learn, they often do not make the most effective choices.
Perhaps the Gonski panel’s proposed new research institute could start to remove some of the custard around differentiation and give teachers a specific set of concepts to work with. That way, we might break the hype cycle.