The education hype cycle

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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:

  1. Are students working to the same learning objectives or different ones?
  2. 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?
  3. Are students working individually or in groups?
  4. 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?
  5. 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.



10 thoughts on “The education hype cycle

  1. It always seems odd that ‘teachers are doing it wrong’ is used as a defence when it can simply be explained by the difference between efficacy and effectiveness.
    Just because an intervention works under perfect conditions does not always make it effective in a real classroom, particularly when factoring in the practical requirements (e.g. time ) and comparing it to alternatives (such as, in this case, responsive, often whole class instruction)

  2. Any way you group pupils for instruction (or learning, if you must) is a form of differentiation, if only by age. Presuming one has a strutured curriculum, there will always be a progression from basic knowledge and concepts to more difficult ones, although unfortunately far too many educators think of this as a trip up the North Face of Bloom’s Pyramid as opposed to the progressive mastery of a body of knowledge. Even in relatively large schools, it is very difficult to ensure that pupils are all more or less at the same point in that progression in all subjects. But to differentiate instruction in any meaningful way entails leaving most of the class rudderless (eg, supposedly learning ‘collaboratively’ from each other) whilst one group or pupil is receiving attention.

    Like it or not, the factory model works. It recognises the social aspect of learning: no one wants to be the only one who doesn’t get it. Common goals motivate everyone; individual goals only work with motivated individuals. And you have to know quite a lot about a subject before you’re motivated to learn more on your own volition.

    1. The factory model works in case studies (single school examples) and as mechanism for compliance but it’s on shaky ground. By that I mean if we look at it when it was most successful the following was happening
      1. Life skills were taught. Schools spent a lot of their time teaching students to cook, sew, build, accountancy, writing skills, etc.
      2. Culture of fear. Discipline was maintained through violence and the troubled were broken down.
      3. Removal by ability. Schools would test students and failure meant leaving, with a suitable job. Can’t do anything dig holes, do a little, here is a trade. Can understand academia well you can go to university.

      Fortunately none of these happen today, and while many lament the dumbing down of curriculum in fact the opposite is true in most cases. Students are expected to understand complex ideas at younger levels (look at the IB program for example), because they can apparently synthesis information from the net more. Gone are the days of History teachers spending weeks teaching dates instead they expect year 7s to relate to early man.

      Now I agree with Greg, the Gonski 2.0 is a joke. It’s a document written by well meaning people to protect those that have become disconnected. But it’s implementation risks disenfranchising those that naturally did well at school, the intellectual. A group of people politicians and power-brokers increasing are at war with. By encouraging education to differentiate more, we open the door to accepting mediocrity as good. Little Tim got an A because he understood quadratics while Little Bob got an A because he could copy the question and needed differentiating for.

      So what does a solution look like? Because I think this is the concern, we can see the problem and Greg has been an awesome flag bearer for explicit teaching which is a solution but not the “right” solution. Well maybe we go back to looking at the 3 things that worked with the factory model (which we won’t be dumping anytime soon) and see if we can update.
      1. Life skills were taught. They might have changed a little but this still applies. Let’s stop teaching academia and teach students to live. Making a budget work, understanding the internet, creating things.
      2. Culture of accountability. The work isn’t done, then does it need repeating or does it need adjusting. Note: some schools are better than others here but consistency would be great.
      3. Pathways by ability. Let students have more options rather than locked-in arbitrary curriculums. Yes they need to learn stuff but it’s easier to eat your greens when you know they are good for you.

      Just a thought.

      1. I cannot follow your comment at all.
        As far as ‘factory schooling’ goes (which is a derogatory term made to conjure up thoughts of out-dated Taylorism or Henry Ford despite the fact that most 1900s schools more likely represented individual learning than whole class instruction), I don’t see what it has to do with life skills, fear or attrition.
        When many people talk about ‘factory schooling’ they seem to be referring to age-based curriculum (children as widgets), classes, subjects (silos) and timetables. I feel, however, that these things have come about because it is more efficient and more effective.

  3. In the US the hype cycle is even more pernicious, as monied interests behind the “exciting new innovation” will try to undermine teachers’ unions and buy up local school boards to promote their vision.

  4. Couldn’t resist reading the trial. Here’s part of the abstract. “Experimental classes received units of differentiated, peer-mediated, hands-on instruction, while control classes received traditional science instruction. Results indicate that collaborative hands-on activities statistically facilitate learning of middle school science content on posttests and on state high-stakes tests for all students and that students enjoyed using the activities.”

    Is the intervention differentiated, peer-mediated, hands-on or collaborative instruction? To save you reading the whole paper the full text only confuses the matter further.

    If researchers can’t even describe the intervention consistently over two sentences of their abstract, how can the poor teacher possibly implement it in the classroom?

    And don’t get me started on the rest of the trial methods! 🙂

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