Teaching Tidbit – Differentiation 

Differentiation is the bane of a teacher’s job. At least, it is in my case. I’ve beaten the ‘differentiation is obsolete’ drum for so long now, that the drum membrane has become as worn as a 17th century farmer’s shoe.

Scandinavian countries far outperform English schools in global league tables, yet differentiation isn’t revered as the Holy grail of excellent pedagogy in Finland.

The Government is attempting to adapt the mathematics curriculum to more closely resemble the Singaporean approach to teaching mathematics, but differentiation by task is a laughable concept to colleagues in Singapore. All students are required to master each topic before proceeding onto the next, ensuring that every pupil can access the most difficult mathematical concepts.

In my experience, it’s usually primary school teachers who are most upset when I call for the abolition of differentiation. “How will little Davey be able to access the curriculum if I haven’t differentiated the worksheet to allow him to fill in missing words instead of writing two paragraphs?!” My response will always be the same. What is wrong with Davey writing slightly less than everyone else, but keeping the quality of the written work high?

I’m certain that there are some secondary school teachers who will be trying to snipe me from a rooftop too. But; take a step back for a moment. Ask yourself the question: is differentiation essential for good teaching and learning?

Once you venture into the world of post 16 education, where does the differentiation go? Why does it vanish like the reputation of Hollywood directors? Is the quality of teaching and learning so much poorer in post 16 education because of the absence of differentiated tasks?

If differentiation is the lynch pin of excellence, surely every university lecturer would have a fully differentiated session planned for their cohort of young adults. Yet, young lawyers, doctors, builders, electricians and teachers all survive the rigors of post 16 education without the need for differentiated outcomes. In fact, I would wager that the absence of differentiated tasks in post 16 education increases drive, determination and doggedness, facilitating a love of learning and resilience in the face of adversity.

My writing has never been exemplary. However, it hasn’t hindered my progress in life. I’ve a Diploma in Psychology, a degree in education and a secondary mathematics PGCE. I would never have even thought of asking for my work to be differentiated in university, and I believe my writing has progressed because of this.

I’m absolutely not advocating for a cull to differentiation. But I feel it’s time the teaching community investigate if the current differentiation techniques are fit for purpose.

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