I am of the belief that academic achievement is the core purpose of schooling, and it is up to us teachers to ensure students achieve at a high enough level to function well in society (For reference, it’s 420 on PISA). Of course, this is a rather complex undertaking because students differ in their innate intellectual ability and environmental circumstances, meaning that the range of academic ability in any classroom can be exceptionally wide. In any given year level, there is a five to six-year difference between the most advanced and the least advanced ten percent of students. There is some evidence that this gap could be even wider in mathematics classrooms (see here).
Differentiated instruction, where instructional methods, materials and outcomes differ according to student need, is often highlighted as a solution to this problem. Differentiated instruction comes in pretty extreme forms. Its most extreme form is that of personalised learning, which is a method where all students in a classroom receive personalised instruction that is uniquely tailored to their individual needs. It is an intuitive solution. Surely if we adjust things so that all students are working on what they need most, things will be better for everybody? Intuitive yes, but an evidence-based solution? No. There is no body of evidence that personalising learning experiences within a standard classroom will lead to better outcomes for all, nor is there any that suggests it will close the gap between the highest and lowest performing students. The practical implications for extreme differentiation are also dire: I can hardly keep up planning for one lesson with added adjustments let alone thirty at once. It’s shiny idea with very little behind it.
Teachers should be aware that a lack of evidence or practical problems may not be enough to fend off calls for extreme forms of differentiation. We know that models based on explicit instruction – ones that do not lend well to extreme forms of differentiation – are backed by solid evidence. Despite this, many still call for extreme differentiation and suppression of explicit instruction on legislative grounds. For some, teachers who do not embed extreme forms of differentiation are discriminating against students who may have a special need or learning difficulty – visible or invisible (here). This is a core argument of those who advocate for Universal Design for Learning, an extreme model of differentiation that pushes student choice.
It may sound dystopian, but we could even be heading toward a future where evidence-based practices are outlawed entirely on discrimination grounds. Possible restrictions on what teachers can and can’t do pedagogically is a grave concern because we know that it is effective teaching that makes the difference. Eliminating pedagogical choice would probably not end well.
I’d like to stress that I am not against all forms of differentiation and do not at all advocate for discrimination of any student in any way, shape or form (obviously). It is patently obvious to anyone who has taught a class of 20-30 students that differentiation is necessary if we are to achieve our goal as educators. What I am against is hyper-differentiation and personalisation. Students with serious academic needs require intervention and this should be adequately funded to ensure students secure basic skills they are sorely lacking. Within the classroom, it is perfectly possible to make adjustments to evidence-based practices to ensure all students gain from a series of lessons. The best teachers I have seen purposefully target students in different ways using data from good assessment for learning practices. For example, after explanation, a teacher may ask a series of targetted questions to ascertain where students are at in the lesson. They may have students write responses on mini whiteboards which the teacher can scan to see if a high success rate has been reached. Some students may be released to practice; others may be called forward for further instruction, explanation and practice with immediate feedback. In utopia, it will be these same students who will be required to practice harder and longer on the concept thereafter. Here, using valid assessment data, it is the amount and intensity of instruction that is adjusted, and that is what I advocate. The solution is almost always that students need more not different.
A combination of quality instruction with reasonable adjustments within class and targetted intervention out of class can be a pragmatic and often successful means of catering for almost all students so that they can achieve the level necessary to participate in society. We need to work on optimising that. Naturally, there are others who will need greater support, and one could argue that not enough funding and support is directed to supporting these students. No teacher will object to funding more resources to help the students who need it most. What is clear is that extreme forms of differentiation may not be desirable for what we wish to achieve.