Alternatives to differentiation

I have been writing about differentiation for at least six years. However, after my most recent post, I noticed a difference – people started asking me for alternatives. Perhaps that signals that we have reached a tipping point.

Firstly, we need to establish a few points, Differentiation is poorly defined and at least three of my suggestions could be described as forms of differentiation. Also, I am not claiming that evidence supports these options. The evidence base has always been thin.

My primary concern with differentiation has always been its logic. As understood in most schools, it usually means creating groups within a class and preparing different tasks for each group. This implies a heavy workload for the teacher. As Rebecca Birch pointed out on Twitter:

It also reduces the capacity for explicit teaching. If you have one class divided into six groups then in a one hour lesson, you have a maximum of ten minutes you can spend with each group. That’s before you take into account any admin time and time spent on classroom management – which tends to expand once you group the students because you have to keep intervening with the groups you’re not currently working with.

So, I am not claiming my alternatives have a strong evidence base drawn from randomised controlled trials, I am claiming that they are based on superior logic.

I also wish to make it absolutely clear that I think reasonable adjustments should be made for children with a disability. There is an issue with the quality and practicality of many proposed adjustments, as well as the issue of potential over diagnosis, but I won’t go into that here.

Finally, I am going to focus on approaches to maximise academic progress i.e. address students’ needs. There are occasions when we may simply want to accommodate them. For instance, for obvious reasons, we may want a young person who cannot write to still participate in a sex education lesson. In these circumstances, putting up a barrier by requiring that student to write notes would be perverse.

So, caveats out of the way, what are my bright ideas?

Don’t create gaps

This may initially seem like unhelpful advice, but I think we should avoid creating gaps between students in the first place. Yes, some gaps are unavoidable because students joining school will vary in terms of family background, working memory capacity and a range of other factors. However, I do think there are circumstances where we make it worse.

For instance, when compared with East Asian maths teachers, maths teachers in the U.S. and Australia tend to be more insistent that understanding must come before memorisation. East Asian teachers still think understanding is important, but they are more relaxed about it coming after memorisation,

Understanding is usually expressed by students through their language skills. This means that children with more advanced language skills will be more able to give teachers the cue that they understand and therefore move on to the next step. I have heard teachers say, for example, that students cannot move onto decimals until they’ve demonstrated a good enough understanding of fractions. But on what basis are such judgements made? How do we know these kids can’t cope with decimals?

Instead, we should focus on drilling in number facts, GPCs and so on, regardless of whether we get these understanding cues.

Similarly, ineffective teaching practices will have a differential effect. Students with the best internal resources will be able to cope, but those without will become lost, further increasing the gap. Instead, we should use effective methods such as explicit teaching.

Extension booklets

A rather prosaic form of differentiation, the power of the humble extension booklet should not be overlooked. More advanced students can become bored as the teacher re-explains something to the less advanced because they are able to more rapidly transition from ‘I do’ to ‘We do’ to ‘You do’. There are two main things to bear in mind.

More advanced students still need to be taught how to do things, so an extension book full of questions on content they have not been taught will simply provoke lots of questions.

Secondly, students themselves are not always a good judge of when they can move on to the booklet. With many maths skills, for instance, we want students to achieve mastery. That involves them practising past the point of being able to get the right answer and up to the point where they cannot get the wrong answer. Therefore, the teacher still needs to control when these students move on.

Response to Intervention

I have written about Response to Intervention (RTI) before. The model consists of three tiers. The first is high quality instruction that all children receive. After this, some sort of screening check is put in place and a group of students who have not made adequate progress are identified. These pass into Tier 2 – a small group intervention which consists of a more intensive version of the Tier 1 teaching. Finally, students who don’t make adequate progress in Tier 2 pass to Tier 3 for individualised support.

RTI is good for non-negotiables such as reading or basic maths. It is clearly resource intensive and so few schools would be able to afford to apply it to other areas. It also relies heavily on the quality of the Tier 1 instruction and the screening checks. If your Tier 1 is balanced literacy and your Tier 2 is reading recovery then you can forget it.

Ability grouping

Ability grouping – assigning students to different classes based on what they have demonstrated they can do – is a bogeyman among educationalists because they see it as inequitable. One group of researchers called it ‘symbolic violence‘.

Meta-analyses tend to show a small advantage for students assigned to the more able groups and a small disadvantage for those assigned to the lower groups.

However, these meta-analyses tend to suffer from all the worst features of educational meta-analyses. Few of the studies involved are randomised. Flexible ability grouping in different subjects is often conflated with ‘tracking’ where students are assigned to the same ability group for all of their classes and even with within-class ability grouping or what many people think of as differentiation.

The UK’s Education Endowment Foundation had a chance to sort this out via a randomised controlled trial, but they bungled it, possibly because the study involved some of the researcher who think ability grouping is symbolic violence.

In my view, ability grouping offers a chance to pitch content in a more targeted way without the many practical issues associated with within-class differentiation. The problem arises when the less advanced classes are given to the least experienced teachers or when the content is degraded under some of the mistaken assumptions I described above. Layer in a school context with an inadequate approach to discipline and teaching the less advanced class becomes about keeping students busy rather than ensuring they make progress.

I would therefore only advise approaching ability grouping if you have systems in place to mitigate these problems. You may also need to prepare your response to ideologically motivated attacks.


3 thoughts on “Alternatives to differentiation

  1. Chester Draws says:

    I would therefore only advise approaching ability grouping if you have systems in place to mitigate these problems. You may also need to prepare your response to ideologically motivated attacks.

    Our school’s low ability grouping is more or less immune to ideological attacks because it is so successful. It is really hard to argue that students who have been failing for years are being disadvantaged when they do so well in the class.

    It is a small class. It is selected entirely on ability (so is not used as a dumping ground for troublesome students). It gets quality teachers — often heads of department and senior management. They mostly do the same work as other classes, so the sense of “dumbing down” is minimised, albeit they do a lower literacy course (because largely that’s why they are there in the first place).

    It’s really hard to argue against clear success.

  2. Pingback: Differentiation: The high wire act of teaching. – Assistant Principal's Office Blog

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