Let me start straight out by saying that differentiation can be a good thing. Indeed, it is a key part of good teaching in most cases. However, it is only a means to an end; or at least it ought to be.
In recent years, however, it seems that in too many cases the act of differentiation has come to be valued above the purpose. I have been meaning to blog about this for some time, and was prompted by the first part of a two-part blog by Rachael Stevens (@murphiegirl) – DIFFERENTIATION: Whatever people say it is, that’s what it’s not – which highlights a perfect example. Well worth a read, and look out for part 2!
A quick scan of the TES Primary forums will often bring up messages from teachers who explain the situation in their schools:
“We have detailed daily plans, differentiated three ways “
“differentiated activities ( at least 4 ways) showing activity”
Note how nothing here indicates any awareness (or need for awareness) of the capabilities of the students. Rather, the goal has become to demonstrate that differentiation has taken place. I suspect that this is one of those things that has emerged from the need of SLTs to feel that they are covering all Ofsted criteria. The perception seems to be that if lessons are being differentiated 3, or 4 or even 5 or more ways, then all students must be receiving a personalised curriculum. But, of course, that’s nonsense.
What the current criteria for Outstanding lessons actually says is much simpler
Teachers use well-judged and often imaginative teaching strategies, […] that, together with clearly directedand timely support and intervention, match individual needs accurately.
There is no stipulation about the number of different thresholds which must be met, or the ways in which activities must be set. Merely that teachers must match the needs of the individuals in their class accurately. It is only through misunderstanding (wilful or otherwise) of that statement that schools could end up with policies that stipulate evidence of differentiated activities in every lesson. But it is clearly the case that in some schools lessons are judged – at least in part – on the basis of teachers providing clearly identified differentiated tasks for different groups of students. Of course, this is much easier than judging whether activities are well-matched to individual needs, but as is often the case, we fall into the trap here of valuing what is measurable, rather than attempting to measure what is valuable.
How often, in schools with enforced policies regarding visible differentiation, are students being artificially held back because the teacher has a need to show that they have given easier work for some than others? And how much teacher time is being spent on creating such activities, that could otherwise be much better invested in targeting support and tasks more effectively through knowing the students and their achievements well.
As I said at the beginning, differentiation is unquestionably a key teaching skill. Being seen to differentiate? That’s just jumping hoops.