The scourge of differentiation

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.

8 thoughts on “The scourge of differentiation

  1. teachingbattleground 21 October 2013 at 6:32 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. nancy 22 October 2013 at 1:35 pm Reply

    Unfortunately teaching is dominated by the need to count and show everything in a tick box. And we seem so bound up in the measurable minutiae that we lose sight of the bigger picture.

  3. moriarity 26 October 2013 at 2:00 am Reply

    Differentiation is a good thing and in my experience good teachers know very well how to differentiate for the needs of their students. Unfortunately, like most good things in teaching it is rather more complex than can be put on a planning sheet, so it has been reduced to ‘low, middle and high ability’ grouping, which is just a crude way of demonstrating you thought about differentiation and usually means very little in the classroom. The problem is filling in boxes became seen as the be all and end of planning that we like our three boxes – two doesn’t seem thoughtful and four seems overkill. A couple of years ago I sat down with some senior teachers at my school and asked them to redefine the planning so that it made more sense to them, was more practical and less onerous. They still kept the three boxes… I nearly feel off my chair. It has taken a good two years but now we think about differentiation in much more flexible ways – we thin about readiness, we differentiate not just through tasks but through questioning, through choice of activity or medium. Sometimes they still fill in three boxes and I ask them ‘Why?’ – when they can’t think of a good reason then I say ‘Why bother?’. The key issue is learning, planning should be at the service of learning… too often it is the other way round.

    • Michael Tidd 26 October 2013 at 8:46 am Reply

      Your final sentence sums it up for me perfectly, moriarity!

  4. […] have written previously about the scourge that is differentiation in our schools. I genuinely believe that some uses of differentiation are positively harmful to […]

  5. […] the vagueness of National Curriculum levels, the nonsense of arbitrary sub-levels, and some of the worst vagaries of differentiation. But it needs a coherent approach at the school level. Each school must be clear about how it […]

  6. primaryblogger1 11 December 2013 at 11:48 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.

  7. lucylawton 12 December 2013 at 7:34 am Reply

    This is so true, and quite often I have seen differentiation underestimate the children of lower abilities so that they are not being challenged enough, in order to get the ‘green traffic light’ from the pupil in their books to show they understood. The essence of the pupils working as a whole class is lost, and the fun taken out of learning. Teachers should be able to explain the task imaginatively as a whole and then differentiate their marking techniques instead of all the fuss of differentiating work in the classroom like you say – for show more than anything. Creativity is being replaced with hard evidence which is very sad to see. Please see my articles on education at and share your thoughts!

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