Thinking about differentiation…

Ever since I began teaching, differentiation has been a fundamental and unquestionable aspect of good practice, but in my mind it has become an increasingly nebulous concept over time; a word that has encompassed such a diverse range of meanings and strategies that it has lost value.  Of course the idea of ensuring that aspects of lesson content are matched to students’ needs so that they can succeed is not contentious and we must ensure that we consider the needs of our SEN students, reading their TSPs and using the information to cater for their needs. But it is the fact that differentiation has become synonymous with simplification that I think perpetuates injustice…

I am sure that I am far from alone in having planned three different versions of the same lesson to deliver to one class in the name of differentiation.  This was hugely time consuming, difficult to manage and there is little evidence to suggest that it raises attainment for students.  Although all of this work was probably a waste of time, I think that by far the worst incarnation of differentiation was the use of the words ‘all, most and some’ to differentiate learning outcomes for students.  These three words are in my view one of the most pernicious phrases to enter education.  For a brief period, it was considered good practice to not only have lower aspirations for some students compared with others, but to also write this down and share it with students.  I have done it myself: identified that all students will be able to complete a task at a basic level whilst an elite few will be able to achieve something more advanced.

I have a similar issue with the concept of differentiated questioning as it implies that it is ok to ask some students easier questions than others.  Of course, breaking down hard questions into manageable parts so that students’ thinking is scaffolded is positive, but I think far too often this isn’t what has been meant by differentiated questioning. I also remember being told by a dyslexia specialist that differentiation for dyslexic students should involve asking them to respond to tasks in ways that did not involve writing because this would allow them to demonstrate their learning more successfully.  This is entirely counterintuitive to me.  Surely, if students struggle to write, doing less of it will exacerbate the problem and they will fall further behind their peers.  The exam board will not accept that some children complete their examinations without writing so those students who have been deprived of opportunities to practise are immediately disadvantaged. When students struggle to translate understanding into writing, the job of the teacher is to provide them with structures that help them to do so and then, through practice, help them to internalise those structures until they no longer need the scaffolding.

Becky Lear recently introduced me to the term ‘equitable classroom’.  I appreciate that this can be considered just another education buzz word, but I like it much more than differentiation.  The word equitable means ‘fair and impartial’ and if you Google the term you will find lots of cartoon images of children standing on boxes looking over a fence; some of the children are on larger boxes than others in order to reach the same height as their peers.  Obviously the idea being promoted is that education should not be about accepting that some children will be stuck at a lower level, but thinking about what scaffolding we can put in place to help them to climb.  I do not underestimate the challenge of this.  I teach children with a vast range of starting points and I always adopt the ‘teach to the top’ philosophy.  I teach the whole class the same lesson, never pitched to the middle or changed so that some students are expected to understand or do less than others, but of course some students produce written work of a higher standard than others: they are able to recall, process and apply what I have taught them more successfully than others and this means that I have spent a lot of time researching and thinking about how to close the gap…

This research has led me to read several theories of intelligence and one that I find particularly interesting suggests that there are two types of intelligence: fluid and crystallised.  Fluid intelligence refers to our ability to think and reason whereas crystallised intelligence refers to the amount of knowledge stored in our long term memories.  If correct, this means that the vast majority of students have the ability to get cleverer if they are consistently given opportunities to learn and remember knowledge.  Not knowledge that has been simplified, but knowledge that is complex and challenging, chunked down so that they can process and store it, and then have lots of opportunities to practise retrieving that knowledge, applying it and adding to it.

This of course also relates to cognitive load theory.  Generally, I consider Daniel Willingham to be the best person to read when it comes to CLT, but Frederick Reif’s book ‘Applying Cognitive Science to Education’ is also pertinent to this area which I initially learned about from this very interesting blog.  He presents cognitive load as a formula:

Cognitive load = task demand/ available resources

Reif theorises that the ‘available resources’ can be divided into two categories:

  • Internal resources – the knowledge that students already have in their LTMs
  • External resources – the materials we give to students (calculator, coded periodic table, sentence parameters etc)

As teachers we cannot ultimately decrease the level of task demand because examination tasks are set by exam boards so simplifying tasks that we ask students to do is counterproductive.  Reif therefore suggests that rather than simplifying tasks, we should instead break down the task into more manageable chunks.  We are then not expecting something different or less demanding from some students, we are just giving them more boxes to stand on.   An example of doing this in English would be:

Task – How does Shakespeare present Macbeth’s ambition in this scene from Act 1?

Chunked task:

  1. Identify and highlight a line that suggests that Macbeth is feeling ambitious
  2. Label the method being used in the line
  3. Circle one word in the line that is particularly important to helping us understand Macbeth
  4. Write a ‘not only but also’ sentence to explain how Shakespeare has used language to present Macbeth’s ambition
  5. Analyse how Shakespeare’s choice to use the words you selected present Macbeth’s ambition

Of course our most important role is to increase the internal resources that our students have to call on. Our ‘weaker’ students are likely to have fewer internal resources to be able to complete a demanding task than their peers: we can give them more external resources to support them, but ultimately this won’t help unless the external resources we provide, lead to the development of internal resources.

I am particularly keen to embrace both of these theories because I am hugely enthused by the idea that children who are labelled as ‘low ability’ or ‘weak’ may not have sufficient knowledge in their long term memories in order to attach new learning to it; perhaps they are just as capable as their more successful peers if we take the time to teach them the knowledge they need- to give them the internal resources that facilitate growth.

This time is undoubtedly difficult to find at KS4, but KS3 affords us opportunities to embed deep learning.  In English, I have started to take a lot more time to embed knowledge with all of my classes and I have already seen them exceed my expectations.  I have prioritised the following three areas of focus with my year 8 class:

  • Vocabulary – building knowledge of words has meant that every student in my class can now accurately use words such as malevolent, notorious and implacable fluently in their writing.
  • Sentence structure – students are able to respond to questions in more depth and detail by using specific sentence constructions that I am trying to embed as part of their repertoire (I shall write more about this soon)
  • Contextual knowledge – I am now teaching my students far more declarative knowledge (knowing stuff) alongside procedural knowledge (knowing how to do things). For example, I recently taught my class what a ghoul is.  They already had a general sense that it was something supernatural, but did not know that it is a creature that originates from Arabian religion and is associated with graveyards and consuming human flesh.  This declarative knowledge meant that when I gave them a newspaper report about Jack the Ripper, dating from 1888 which described him as ‘ghoul-like’ they were able to evaluate and explore language (procedural knowledge) far more insightfully.

In terms of improving our teaching of knowledge, the English team have also made two key changes this year:

  1. Introduction of a Greek classics unit in year 7, covering The Iliad/ The Odyssey. So much of what students read and experience has roots in the classics, making this important contextual knowledge.
  2. Classical allusions homework project with year 9. Every week students are issued with a text about an important figure from history/ literature/ mythology/ religion to read and complete activities in response to.

I am not advocating throwing students in at the deep end and hoping for the best, but at the same time I believe that sometimes well-intentioned differentiation actually condemns students to an education in the shallows.  Using scaffolding such as vocabulary, sentence structures and contextual knowledge can empower students by ensuring they know stuff that will allow them to move out of their depth.

Practical ideas for scaffolding learning:

  • Identify the knowledge that allows all children to succeed in your subject and prioritise embedding it into the LTMs of students so that all students- particularly those who might know less than their peers- can potentially get cleverer.
  • Use daily review & retrieval practice to improve storage strength and ensure prior knowledge is accessed before adding new learning
  • Allow time for overlearning so that students experience repeated exposure to knowledge and have more time to practise applying it
  • Use TSPs as a tool to help identify the ‘boxes’ that students need to help them ‘see over the fence’
  • Always consider the reading ability of the child compared with the level of texts that they are asked to read and ensure that if there is a gap between the two, support put in place to allow students to understand it. This website is really useful when trying to judge the level of challenge of a text as you can simply enter a sample of text and it instantly generates information about how challenging the text is to read.  If the text is difficult, it doesn’t necessarily mean that children should not be exposed to it, but perhaps the most challenging vocabulary will need to be pretaught; or the perhaps the teacher will need to read the text to the class first; or perhaps the students will only read one paragraph at a time and summarise the content before reading the next.
  • Give students external resources that reduce cognitive load as they practice, but ensure that students practise with them until they are internalised and can be used independently. Having to repeatedly provide the same resource for a long time suggests it is operating as a tool for differentiation rather than increasing internal resources.

External Resources:

Knowledge organisers – issuing a knowledge organiser at the beginning of a topic means that students always have something to refer to as the learning progresses

Structure Strips- No matter how much time has been spent scaffolding learning by asking students to produce small, carefully crafted units of work, transitioning this into extended writing represents a high level of cognitive challenge.  Structure strips are a good way to scaffold this step as students have a clear guide to what they are required to write.  Structure strips can contain sentence stems for students to use or short prompts to remind them of key ideas.

structure strips

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