Still Not Convinced About Differentiation

The main reason I blog is because I am acutely aware of shaky ideas in education and the damage they can do to the profession. I feel there is a need to question ideas to find the truth. Many ubiquitous ideas in education go unquestioned – simply accepted as the norm. This is a dangerous position that leads to the proliferation of bad ideas such as Whole Language and the learning styles myth.

I’ve questioned differentiation in the past. It is an ever-present reality in education enshrined in AITSL’s education standards. It is at the forefront of initial teacher education and ongoing professional development. I am not so much in opposition to differentiation in its entirety; I am acutely aware that students have different abilities influenced both by nature and nurture and so things will need to be adjusted to ensure good progress for all. The problem I have with differentiation is how it is currently used within the classroom.

I recently attended a presentation on Language Processing Disorder and how these impact practice in the classroom. After a lengthy presentation, the presenter suggested teachers ought to differentiate to accommodate the needs of these students: instead of writing all the time, students could present their learning in a video rather than hand in written work, for example. They should be given a choice.

This approach seems intuitive, but it is this approach to differentiation I question the most. If students with LPD are given the chance to present their work using a video presentation as opposed to a written piece of work then how are they ever going to strengthen their writing skills. By doing this, a teacher eliminates the chance to practise, making it less likely for these students to ever reach competence with written work. If you eliminate the need for them to write, how are they ever meant to improve their writing? When I raised this concern with the presenter, she simply stated that it was not fair to make students constantly do what they are not good at, that they should be given the chance to shine at things they are good at. I simply disagree, I posit that those students who struggle with writing should be writing the most, not making videos as an alternative. Because, whether we like it or not, the ability to write far outweighs the ability to make a good video. That’s just reality.

The presenter clarified her arguments after some discussion by communicating that students should not always be given an alternative, but work should be differentiated to meet their needs. She gave an example of one class where the most able students were writing formal letters to the government arguing for action and the less able pupils were making postcards as an alternative because it was more accessible to them and engaged them in the task. The students were working towards the same outcome, but completing the task at an accessible level. Again I totally disagree with this approach. Writing is not a generic skill. The language and structure required to write a formal letter is fundamentally different to that of a postcard, which is informal and often exchanged between close relatives and friends, not sent to formal bodies. I do not believe students with LPD should be denied the chance to learn how to write a formal letter. In fact, I would argue that such a genre is of high importance and see no reason why the language and skills needed to write a formal letter cannot be taught to these students.

It is this form of differentiation, where the selection of tasks differs across students to ‘meet their needs’, I do not completely understand and question. We should not be differing the content, but the amount of instruction given to each child. Students can learn how to write a formal letter if its features are broken down and taught well, some students just require more instruction to do so. They should not be denied the chance to learn how. Doing so will only exacerbate the Mathew Effect – those who have, gain more; those who have not, gain less.

Differentiation of content: so ubiquitous, I’m still not convinced.

8 thoughts on “Still Not Convinced About Differentiation”

  1. Exactly right about the amount of instruction needed being key – in Citizenship I see ‘formal letter’ activities tacked onto the end of lesson regularly with minimal instruction as to how the complete something of quality – this is what should be addressed – thanks for consolidating my thoughts on this

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  2. Interesting read. I agree with you that we should look at properly scaffolding student learning. My only thought would be that in the first assignment you speak of it feels that it would depend on what is the objective actually is. If the objective is writing then definitely an option to do something different should not be included. At the same time supports such as speech to text, word prediction software, outlines that get filled and then used for the writing make sense. If the objective of the assignment is to test content knowledge then I am not convinced that writing should be the only way to demonstrate that knowledge and it would make good sense to give students choice in the way that they demonstrate knowledge of the content. I personally believe more in UDL then DI for this very reason. UDL starts by looking at what the objective actually is and then looks for ways to break down barriers for the student to achieve that objective.

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  3. Differentiation is about planning with all students in mind at the outset before teaching occurs. It is about providing multiple ways of taking in curriculum knowledge and multiple ways of showing what you know and are able to do. I believe differentiation should focus firstly on the environment then the product that students need to be working towards in the assessment task. If that is writing, then TEACHING writing everyday is critical. However we also need to understand that WRITING in the Australian curriculum is about composing text that conveys meaning. The product might look different according to how the student composes the text. I would suggest that the student with developmental language disorder needs more time st the planning and oral rehearsal phase of teaching and might use speech to text to get their thinking down. They then receive feedback on that composed text with explicit teaching about the language features that meet the genre and purpose of the text. So for me it’s about how we SCAFFOLD the teaching so that ALL students successfully demonstrate learning. That is differentiation!

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