Harry Webb over differentiatiesprookjes in het onderwijs Blog, 27 juni 2014
I was interested to
read Liz Trusss article in the Telegraph yesterday (see here). Yet again, she
made clear her support for the use of good quality textbooks, something that I
have been promoting for some time (see here and here). And she did so on
similar grounds to my own; they enable great efficiencies: Instead of teachers
reinventing the wheel, designing new resources all the time, a good textbook
can allow a teacher to focus on actually teaching.
Many of you, conditioned into the textbooks are bad myth,
wont agree with me. If you believe that a teachers job is to facilitate
learning then the selection and production of resources such as worksheets,
card sorts and the rest will seem central to that. But remember, other
conceptions of the role of the teacher are available. A teacher can be seen as
an instructor, a guide and an explainer of things.
In Siegfried Engelmanns form of Direct Instruction, this
distinction is made plain (see here). The qualities required in a teacher are
not the same as those required in an instructional designer and so the roles
are separate; designers plan the sequencing of lessons and resources whilst
teachers deliver them. And remember just how extraordinarily successful
Engelmanns programmes have been.
So I am glad that this view is being given some prominence.
I am also interested that Truss links these ideas to those
surrounding lesson planning and differentiation and I think these last points
are worth further discussion.
Many of us will have been exhorted to differentiate our
lessons at some point. To a degree, this seems reasonable and I suspect that
most teachers will have an extension activity available for those who grasp the
ideas quickly. Many will also have support materials for those who struggle
although, in reality, this support is often more likely to come in the form of
increased teacher attention.
We need to ask on what basis decisions about differentiation
are being made.
Indeed, students do vary in their ability. Just how much of
this is down to innate intelligence and how much is related to prior knowledge
(and thus the quality of previous teaching) is, at present, unclear. The two
factors obviously interact and, whatever the balance, it has to contain a
little of both. However, determining this balance is still quite important.
For instance, if students are behind their peers mainly due
to prior knowledge then we should simultaneously seek to improve teaching at
lower levels making elementary school teaching the first line of defence as
well as instituting interventions to help them catch-up. If it is more about
innate intelligence then we may decide that some areas of study are just not
suitable for certain students. I dislike the implications of the latter
approach and this is why a bristle when people call for more vocational routes
for children who arent academic.
One of the key proponents of differentiated instruction is
Carol Ann Tomlinson. She favours a model where students are often grouped and
the groups then carry-out different tasks (see here). This avoids the
unmanageable process of every student completing a different task (the logical
conclusion of differentiation). Yet it still allows for difference whilst
having the added bonus as some would see it of promoting cooperative
learning. Tomlinson also promotes differentiation according to learner
profiles which includes the notion of learning styles; so its not just about
ability. I do not accept the evidence for learning styles i.e. that if students
are taught through a preferred mode or style then they will learn better.
However, Tomlinson would dispute the value of such evidence (see here). For
her, it seems as if it is less about sound scientific tests of efficacy and
more about recognising student difference.
The appeal of learning styles is the same as the appeal of
multiple intelligences and is reflected in those who call for parity of esteem
between vocational and academic education. All of these theories posit that
students are different but that these differences are not in any
hierarchy; they are not as a result of
different levels of knowledge or intelligence. Instead, we are to accept that
kinaesthetic learners are no better or worse than auditory learners or
whatever; they are just different. Although I admire the egalitarian impulse
behind such notions, I see no evidence to support the existence of categories
based upon anything other than knowledge, intelligence and perhaps physical
The burden that the forms of differentiation promoted by
Tomlinson and others places upon teachers is extreme. For each lesson, instead
of selecting a relevant resource from a textbook, instead of even preparing a
resource for our students, we are required to select or prepare multiple
resources. Personally, I would not select a mathematics resource without
thinking about the common misconceptions and difficulties that are likely to
arise. A teacher in the humanities may spend some time considering what a high
quality response to a question might look like. So we would need to multiply
this conceptual planning work by the number of different resources. Time will
In class, the teacher will then need to administer the
running of the groups (which will take time away from teaching), monitor the
work of the groups (because students dont always work very hard when the
teachers attention is focused elsewhere) and attend to instructing the
different groups in their different tasks. We are therefore choosing quite
short periods of targeted instruction over more extensive instruction that is
not as targeted. If you believe that teacher instruction should be limited
that teachers should talk less then this may seem reasonable. But where is
the evidence to support such a view? If you limit teacher talk in this way then
you limit the number of different ways that a teacher can explain a concept,
cycling back and forth between the well-established and the new. You limit
We also have the problem of targeting. How do we know that
our groupings accurately reflect what our students most need? We may use
assessment data but what, exactly, does that tell us? Often, we may have a view
as to the way that students should progress in their understanding of a subject
but I suspect that real learning is a lot messier than that with much looping
backward and forward and with some ideas more fully developed and connected
than others. If we get this wrong, we run the risk of misjudging things and
I suspect that in many classrooms, attempts at this kind of
differentiation leave a lot to be desired. Done well, perhaps it has its
advantages, but the practical difficulties suggest that such a teaching style
is a lot harder to get right than a more whole-class approach. We should not
underestimate the damage that this does to our profession: Those teachers who
do as they are told end up exhausted and probably teach less effectively than
they could. Those teachers who ignore the exhortations feel guilty and
constantly worry about being found out.
Let us return briefly to the evidence that we use to
differentiate. I strongly suspect that in England, black boys are more often
identified as kinaesthetic learners than individuals from other social
groupings. How would we differentiate for such a learner? Well, I suspect we
would get them to move around a lot more and require them to sit still and
write a lot less. We might even excuse some of their behaviour on the basis
that they are kinaesthetic learners who will struggle if not appropriately
Why is this a problem? Black boys need the same things that
every other child needs; a rigorous education and clear boundaries. In fact,
evidence is emerging that a shift in England towards a more academic education
has had a positive impact for black students (see here).
Where moral dangers and practicalities collide
There is one area where both of these dangers play out in
conflicting ways. This is when students are selected into a class based upon
their ability and it comes with various names such as ability grouping,
setting, and tracking.
For some but definitely not all subjects such as
mathematics, student arrive at secondary school with manifest differences in
ability. Some students in a year or grade level may be as much as five years
ahead of others. Again, how much of this could be mitigated by a better
elementary education is unclear but it is likely to be due to a mixture of
intelligence and knowledge factors.
If these students are then placed in the same class you will
either need to differentiate, with all of the practical problems that this
entails, or you will be teaching to a level that is inappropriate to most
students in the class. The case for ability grouping is therefore clear.
However, on what evidence do you place students in the lower
classes? What happens to them there? Is there a poverty of expectation where
students are given simplistic busy work rather than being challenged to
improve? Are these classes allocated to new teachers or less effective
teachers? I think that this is a real danger and one that must be addressed. I
suspect that this is why the data on ability grouping strategies is equivocal.
Part of the problem is that we are too accepting of such
divergence; so accepting that we allow it to grow to monster proportions where
early intervention using explicit teaching strategies may have helped.
However, I also do not think that underperformance can be effectively tackled
by having less able students marginalised in a mixed ability class. Instead,
these lower ability classes should be the target of sustained attention. They
should get the best teachers, the heads of department and the senior leaders
and they should have clear progress targets base upon standardised tests.
As educators, we need to focus on bringing all students up
to a common standard rather than on perpetuating and excusing wide variations
in what students know and can do.