Questioning Differentiation

Let me share one of my favourite quotes:

“Water is so ubiquitous to a fish that it ceases to exist.” 

That is, water is so ever present to a fish that it forgets to question its very existence. I find this perspective incredibly useful in education. There are many things I deem to be water. What sorts of things do we doon a regular basis in education yet never stop to question their efficacy?

Differentiation is widely accepted across all education systems in Australia. In education, it is what water is to a fish.  It was a key part of my initial teacher education and is at the forefront of PD sessions I attend. It has been ever present; I never once stopped to question its existence. So here I question the efficacy of differentiation.

A typical scenario in which differentiation is used would be in a primary mathematics classroom. Students are often grouped within the class by ability. The Kangaroos – high achieving students – may be working on solving a fairly complex word problem while the Wombats – low achievers – play a fraction-match game in the background. The Wombats are a little behind on their mathematics and find it hard to engage, so the teacher lowers the rigour and structure of the lesson. The Kangaroos on the other hand, are engaged, knowledgeable and therefore ‘ready’ for rigour.

Naturally, I have chosen an example that is at the extreme end to argue a point, but I would argue further that despite its extreme nature, it is not uncommon in Australian classrooms.

So what exactly is the problem with this type of differentiation? The problem is in the logic of the approach. How do we expect the Wombats to ever catch up to the Kangaroos if we are continually lowering the academic rigour and structure in our lessons? NCETM’s Director for Primary Debbie Morgan puts it this way:

“We slow them down in order to catch them up… the reality is they will never catch up, the data shows that very few actually do.”

Once we question the practice of differentiation, it really is hard to see the logic in the approach. We differentiate so that students can make better progress, yet they very rarely do. In reality, the Wombats end up with less rigour and less structure in their lessons. It becomes self-fulfilling: lower the standard, get lower results.

Debbie Morgan argues for a different approach. One where teachers teach the whole class for mastery and students who do not succeed gain access to rigorous, small group instruction. This reflects a response to intervention model. The crucial difference is that the content is not differentiated, the amount of instruction is.

“We slow them down in order to catch them up”. Maybe it’s time to question the water around us.



Michaela Way should not be ignored.

Many Australian educators may not know of a school called Michaela creating a storm on twitter at the moment. This school, located in Brent; a disadvantaged area of London, uses strongly ‘traditional’ approaches to teaching and learning. They have a no-excuses discipline policy and use explicit instruction to teach all areas of a very rigorous knowledge-based curriculum. This is in contrast to the approach taken here in Australia. Australian schools do not have no-excuses discpline policies, explicit teaching is not fully employed across all subject areas all of the time, and the Australian Curriculum is light on knowledge.

Recently, Michaela smahed its Ofsted report. Why is this important? We won’t know for sure until Michaela’s oldest students take GCSE’s (HSC equivalent), but it is a very strong indicator of whether or not their methods work. Here is the executive summary:

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Screen Shot 2017-06-18 at 3.11.01 pm.pngClearly, this school creates amazing growth and opportunity for their students. No doubt many detractors of their approach here in Australia will not look twice at this evidence but simply disregard it on ideological grounds. They will say it is inhumane and that it shouldn’t be allowed to happen. They will say it puts undue stress on the students and disregard the reports finding on student welfare:

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This is of great concern because Australian education results are falling in real terms on international tests under alternate methods. The approach taken by Michaela should be taken seriously.

Changing My Mind

Looking back on my initial teacher education, there is no doubt it was of the progressive kind. The driving force behind the course was that a fresh approach to education was needed. This was not made explicit, of course, but the course materials dripped of progressive ideology. Here are some examples:

  • Kevin Robinson’s viral video How Schools Kill Creativity featured on the professional practice unit reading list
  • My science unit promoted learning through discovery using the 5E method, which has found popularity in the Primary Connections series
  • My English unit for early reading stressed the need for teaching through genuine literary experiences, which is in opposition to research on synthetic phonics.
  • Learning styles were a key feature in the text assigned to me for Creative Arts.
  • Game theory was the approach promoted in maths for teaching K-2

The truth is, I bought deeply into this ideology. Almost all educators say they go into the profession to make a difference. I was the same. I genuinely thought the system needed to change. This was largely built on my own anecdotes collected during my schooling. Unknowingly, I had constructed my own utopian ideology before checking the evidence.

Even up to a year ago, I still thought in this way: the school system is broken. What we are doing is not working. We need projects and fun to engage students. We need open spaces and self-directed learning. The teacher must help guide the students, but not tell them what to think and what to learn.

My journey to changing my mind started in England. I was lucky enough to acquire a position in a school just outside London straight out of university. The approach England uses for teaching early reading is called synthetic phonics. Synthetic phonics, and the use of phonics in general, was not a feature in my ITE and, needless to say, I was not a fan. Another approach gaining steam was explicit instruction. Again, not a feature in my ITE. I worked hard to resist both during my year teaching in the UK, never once thinking to check the evidence, just holding firm to the ideological beliefs I had constructed for myself.

Just as I was leaving the UK, I started to question my beliefs. I could see the effect the methods were having on student learning. And, just for a second, I asked myself: Could I be wrong?

This lead me to find answers. There were many stepping stones in between, but the quake moment came after discovering a paper written by Jennifer Buckingham, Kevin Wheldall and Robyn Wheldall titled Why Jaydon Can’t Read: The triumph of ideology over evidence in teaching reading. It was extremely tough reading, gut-wrenching. Finally, I realised my beliefs did not stand up to the rigour of scientific evidence. It tipped me over the edge. I decided to change my mind.

Since then, I have given up any ideological stance on education. I now, first and foremost, use evidence as my compass. Trad, progressivist, it honestly does not matter to me. All that matters is whether or not the approach one promotes actually works and stands up to the rigours of the scientific method.

And if you are an educator doubting your own long-held beliefs on education, I urge you to dig a little deeper. Let evidence guide you. You deserve the truth, and so do the children you serve.