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.

 

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