Regular readers will be aware of my concerns about many of the practices that are encouraged in the name of ‘differentiation’. I will not rehearse those arguments here – my blog post for CEM is probably the most comprehensive account so far – but I will briefly summarise a few points. Firstly, differentiation is on mushy footings, with learning styles and other bogus theories still influencing classroom approaches. Secondly, we need to be clear about when we accommodate a difference and when we address it. A child who is allowed to make videos instead of writing will not improve his or her writing ability. Thirdly, we potentially limit students when we make predictions about what they will be able to do; predictions that are likely to be influenced by normal human biases that teachers are not immune from.
So should we assume that all students are the same and teach them accordingly? Well perhaps, up to a point.
One approach to managing difference is ability grouping. I am ambivalent about this practice even though I have always used it in the departments I have managed. The risk is that ability grouping is done badly, with new and inexperienced staff being given the less advanced groups which are also provided with an impoverished curriculum based upon low expectations. When ability grouping is done well, all classes received the same basic instruction, but the teacher modulates the pace, number and type of examples and the release of control to the students according to need, with the least advanced classes benefiting from the most expert teachers.
Recently, I have spent time considering yet another way to actively manage difference. Response to intervention is a remarkably simple idea that can be applied to everything from teaching reading to behaviour management and it avoids many of the traps that differentiation falls into.
The Response to Intervention model consists of three tiers. The first tier ensures that all student receive rigorous and evidence-informed teaching. An obvious example is an early reading programme that takes a systematic approach to teaching letter-sound relationships. Perhaps a less obvious example is to explicitly teach children rules of behaviour and how they are expected to respond in different situations.
A certain amount of intervention sits within Tier 1 and, again, it should be evidence-informed. A reading teacher will continually assess progress and modulate the teaching to reflect this. For behaviour, a teacher would deploy the normal range of classroom management techniques. PBIS and SWPBS are behaviour models that stress the importance of establishing clear routines, lots of positive reinforcement and occasional mild consequences (see note below). This is a classic ‘behaviourist’ model based on sound principles.
Another key characteristic of Tier 1 is that it has to involve screening checks. These must be as objective as possible in order to avoid some of the bias that teacher assessment inevitably introduces. The UK phonics screening check is an obvious example. However, what would this look like for behaviour? We need to be mindful to catch internalising behaviours – disengagement, apathy, social withdrawal and so on – and not just externalising behaviours such as shouting out, violence and disruption. We can find ourselves focusing on the latter because these behaviours present the most obvious and immediate problems for teachers to deal with, but internalising behaviours also need to be addressed and they can have the same underlying causes.
Tier 2 involves an intervention beyond those that can practically be provided in a regular teaching setting. Typically, Tier 2 interventions involve small groups of students who have been withdrawn from some other activity. Students are not referred to Tier 2 on some kind of whim. Instead, this will be the result of screening checks that show that Tier 1 and its associated interventions have not helped the student make sufficient progress. This is a far more systematic approach to intervention than the approach adopted by most of the schools where I have worked.
The final tier, Tier 3, is an even more intensive intervention that is typically conducted one-to-one. It may, for instance, involve a trained therapist delivering cognitive behavioural therapy.
The key point about the whole approach is that nobody gets stuck. There is always somewhere to go. When I think about the Response to Intervention model, my mind goes back to a school hall in London. There were seven students sat in detention after school and I was in charge of them. Most of them were there for repeatedly breaking the rules around school uniform.
As an aside, you may or may not care about school uniform, but if a school has rules about it then they need to be enforced. Schools are mini-societies. Some of the rules are generic to the society at large and some are specific to a particular setting. This will be the case when students leave school and go on to adult life and in order to be successful, they will need to be able to navigate this landscape. That’s why I am totally fine with expecting students to follow the school rules.
Returning to the school hall, a colleague came in to give me a message. He looked-up at the students and said to me, “These detentions don’t work, do they? It’s always the same kids in here.” He was both right and wrong. The detention did work for all those students who collected the occasional detention or who wore their uniform correctly in order to avoid the detention, but it did not work for those students who he rightly noted were in there regularly.
What we had there was a rudimentary but fairly effective Tier 1 – seven students in detention out of a school of one thousand or more was not many. What we hadn’t considered was any kind of Tier 2.
Note: If you read about programmes like PBIS and SWPBS, you find hardly any mention of negative consequences. However, you do see some glimpses if you look hard enough, often coming from descriptions of these programmes in practice. I therefore think that consequences do exist in these programmes, but researchers like to de-emphasise. An example where they are briefly discusses is this paper in the Journal of Positive Behaviour Interventions which suggests that, ‘a continuum of consequences for responding to inappropriate behavior’ is a characteristic of effective practice.