No Quick Fixes in the Classroom

At times, I struggle to understand why it is that educators too often want to have a simplistic toolkit and rigid rules about when to wield each tool. Differentiation (sometimes differentiated instruction – DI) is a concept at the very heart of all understanding of how to teach a room full of children whilst personalizing the learning experience for each – to meet them where they are, instead of treating the whole class as a homogenous whole to be taught the same material, in the same way. It represents a full acknowledgement that each child walks in to the classroom different and needing something different if they are to learn most effectively. It steps away from the industrial model of ‘one size fits all’ teaching.

The leading authority in the field is the US academic, Carol Anne Tomlinson. For many years she’s been very straight – this is not a simplistic tool, but rather an ideological approach to management of learning in a classroom that can be a lifetime learning journey for an educator. Here, I remember a story heard from a Principal in India. She had arranged for a group of teachers to attend a training workshop with a well-renowned visiting trainer from the UK. The session started about 2.00pm. Around 2.20pm the Principal received a text message on her phone – “Why are we here? We’ve done differentiation before.” This is shocking, we can laugh, but it really does highlight the problem – the teacher (and some of her peers who prompted her to send it!) saw DI as a simplistic set of tools – hear about them once, learned, job done.

This search for simplistic tools can have even more serious and dangerous implications. In Dubai, for example, DI has become mangled and distorted beyond recognition, as I’ve witnessed in multiple teacher interviews. They would describe how, ahead of inspections by the KHDA (an inspection body of the Dubai government, trained and largely run by ex-OFSTED people from the UK), they would be trained to split the children in their classes in to three groups; high, middle and low. The first time I heard this, I was sickened and so carefully quizzed the teacher to see if I was understanding correctly. She confirmed all my worst fears – they categorized children according to how ‘bright’ they were and how much potential they had. This, they had learned to call ‘differentiation’. Of course, what they were doing was categorizing children on the basis of subjective judgement of outcome potential. Then, it got worse. In order to follow this up, on all work the children did, there would be three different worksheets – easy, medium and hard. What a system! Of course, it’s inevitable that this system would be self-proving – the children’s end outcomes and performance would ‘prove’ and justify the category that they had been put in to.

These weren’t just teachers coming out of a single school. They were in various schools managed by different groups, some of them being rated very favourably by the KHDA inspections. After about the third time I heard this sorry and shameful story, I asked the teacher whether she was sure she always put them in the right category. Her reply was, “I think so,” but she really wasn’t very confident. I smiled reassuringly at her as I asked, “How do the parents feel when you tell them that you’ve put their child in the weak category?” I’d already predicted her answer – “Oh no, we couldn’t tell the parents.” What a shamefully immoral approach to education – writing off the potential of thousands of children – but also, what a massive distortion of all the strengths and attributes of DI.

The truth is that DI is not something that is learned in a short time and then added to a teacher’s toolkit. Rather, it’s related to a decision made by the teacher to engage on a never-ending learning process throughout their career in the classroom. It entails building certain key habits, not least the observation skills to understand what each learner in the classroom is experiencing.

Carol Ann Tomlinson, in her most recent rewriting of her key book on the subject of Differentiated Instruction has summed up the mindset of the differentiating teacher. Her perceptions are well summed up in the following short article;

ASCD Inservice – 10 Inspiring Quotes to Help You Differentiate Your Instruction

Each of the ten quotes cited in the article are worthy of thoughtful reflection by both educators and those who lead them.

The principles behind DI are not really so mysterious. In fact they’re simple in outline, but in the reality of the classroom take years of practice to refine one’s abilities. Firstly, comes the principle that an educator should seek to differentiate on the basis that there are three key differences between the students in our classrooms that define their starting point for any learning. These are; readiness to learn, learning needs and interest. Note, none of this suggests that we should have different long term expectations for each student. The end goals are essentially the same for every pupil, but DI highlights that there should be different routes, from different starting points to get to the end goals.

As for ‘what to differentiate’, the key is not to fall in to the simplistic trap of content-centric teachers – that you just vary the content by handing out different worksheets from simple to difficult. What can be differentiated (or how to DO differentiation is well described in this short BBC article:

BBC Active – Methods of Differentiation in the Classroom

We can take note – differentiation of the content/ task is only one of seven different ways described here.

Here’s a further very good article, from Edutopia, that groups the differentiation in to three categories; content, process and evidence. The key with the last is that whilst you’re looking at different means for the student to show evidence it doesn’t mean that you have different expectations for the level of learning each demonstrates in the end.

Edutopia – 3 Ways to Plan For Diverse Learners – What Teachers Do

It’s all nicely presented in this short video of Carol Ann Tomlinson herself;

If our starting point in education is to be the learning of children and their needs (instead of the old-fashioned priority given to the ‘stuff’, the syllabus) then DI is an essential approach for any teacher who cares that every child in the classroom should fulfil their individual potential and reach effective learning goals, from wherever they are starting.


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