Throughout my short teaching career, the buzz word was and, as far as I’m aware still is- although I’m not in the classroom so much anymore- differentiation. It’s the method by which we ensure that lessons are suitable for the range of students in the class. As I moved through my teaching career I developed my understanding of differentiation from the idea that I should be giving different work to different students based on my perception of their ability, to the idea that differentiation was actually what I did as the teacher to support all students in achieving some notion of an acceptable level. So, differentiation was a teacher behaviour to ensure everyone achieved mastery, not just the act of giving out different worksheets. Whatever your interpretation of differentiation, or however it manifests itself in your classroom, it’s a noble and admirable notion. Arguably even the most important thing a teacher can do in terms of the mechanics of their lesson. Essentially, differentiation is the act of trying to provide a more personalised learning experience for students. It’s an attempt to repair a fundamentally broken part of the education system as we know it.
Let’s take an average class of 25 students and one teacher. And let’s imagine a lesson which would broadly be considered to be a good lesson (not in the OfTSED framework, just in general terms, a solid lesson). The teacher probably has some engaging started planned, which gets the students thinking as soon as they come into the room. It gets them talking and they’re intrigued to see what happens next. The teacher then delivers some key learning points and it’s very interesting. Students are all engaged and enjoy what the teacher has to say. It’s delivered from a powerpoint but this is deliberately quick so as not to feel like a lecture. The teacher then introduces the students to a series of activities, each one different in terms of its difficulty, to ensure that every child in the room can succeed. The teacher allows students to choose the task which best suits their needs. Students can move through the tasks, taking on increasingly more challenging tasks as they complete work. Throughout the lesson, the teacher engages in conversation with students, pauses the group for a mini-plenary to clarify key points that she has picked up on. She brings the group together for a collaborative learning activity where there are opportunities for students to coach each other and rectify misunderstandings. She then allows the group to carry on with the differentiated tasks and focuses her support on those students who are clearly struggling but also checks in with those working on the most difficult tasks and makes sure they are suitably challenged. At the end, the teacher wraps up with a plenary to assess understanding and makes some mental notes for what next lesson needs to focus on. All students made progress, they were highly engaged and they enjoyed the lesson. It’s one of those that you wish someone had turned up to watch!
When we share our model of The Future Classroom, we often present the current model as some bland mixture of students sitting in rows, taking notes from powerpoints and being lectured to from a stuffy teacher who has no imagination. Compared to this, any alternative looks great! But how does a student-paced, blended learning experience, such as that which we present in Education Reimagined stand up against a lesson such as the one described above? How does it compare to what we would consider today to be ‘an outstanding lesson’, if there were still such as thing? If you don’t want to use my example, imagine the very best lesson you’ve ever taught and let’s see how The Future Classroom stacks up against that.
The lesson you’re imagining probably had some notion of differentiation. It probably involved you carefully and deliberately planning activities which catered for a range of students, or it involved you putting structures in place which meant that all students, regardless of their starting point could reach some level of mastery. Why did you do this?
It’s because you know that if you didn’t, the lesson would be too hard for some, and too easy for others. You did it because the 1-25 ratio is not personal enough. You did it because you know that you have 25 different students in your class and you try your very best to give each one of them the very best opportunity you can, to tailor everything to the individuals in your group. You did it becasue you care about each child in your class and because it is the best way, in the dominant model of education, to achieve something close to personalised learning.
Differentiation then is a bolt-on. It’s something we need to do in order to fix the fact that the 1-25 ratio is not finely tuned enough to allow the teacher to provide a personal experience. Now may be a good time to remind people that the lesson you had in mind, or the one described above, is not the norm. This lesson is not the one you would see if you walked down most school corridors and peered in through the door. These lessons are the exception to the rule, most don’t come close to this. Differentiation on this level takes time, planning and preparation, something which is in short supply for most teachers.
But even if all lessons did look like that, even if the dominant experience was one in which lessons were highly differentiated, in my opinion, it still doesn’t come close that provided by a student-paced, blended experience.
Let’s take the clearly brilliant teacher above and assume that she delivered that level of quality every lesson (which, just to be clear, isn’t what’s happening). The model is the same. Students come into the lesson and the content is set; “today we’re learning about this thing” the teacher says and goes on to deliver what can only be described as a phenomenal lesson. The students leave enlightened. They come to the next lesson and the teacher says, “This lesson we’re going to learn this next thing”, and then goes on to deliver another astoundingly well planned, differentiated lesson, and so it goes on.
The pace and direction of the learning are set by the teacher, maybe within lessons, there is some level of choice, but on a macro level, the experience of all of the students in that class is broadly the same. The students, regardless of whether they fully mastered last lesson move on. But this teacher is fantastic; she is marking books and engaging with students during the lesson, so she knows when an individual has not understood something. She works hard to make sure she checks in with those who are struggling. But what if, inevitably, they still don’t get it? She has to accept a lower standard. She has to accept that 70% is good enough. Because time is against her, the system only grants her a set amount of time with each class, and in turn with each student, so despite her best efforts, she has to admit defeat, and at times, let it slide when someone doesn’t master something. This is not a failing of the teacher, but a failing of the system. The model forces her to allow this to happen. And worse of all, teachers have to work exceptionally hard to counter the negative effect of the model that’s in place. Teachers do all of this work in spite of the model. In other words, they’re working against the model and the model is working against them.
The answer is not to have better strategies for differentiation (or to strive for lower class sizes), this is just sticking more plasters over the broken part of the model. We can patch it up as much as we like, but it’s still broken. The answer is to have a better model.
The model is set out in Education Reimagined, which you can read for free here.
This post is probably long enough already, but essentially, the model requires that we put ‘delivery of information’ online, in the form of tutorials. Importantly, this is not to replace the teacher, just to replace the teacher delivering information to a whole group of students homogenously. Then we need to ensure that all of the resources that a student needs to succeed are available to them just when they need them (worksheets, activities, teachers, support networks, great feedback etc). If we combine the best of the classroom with the best of online learning, we can have a model where students can work at their own pace through an entire topic or unit of work or even an entire course*. This negates the need for differentiation in the traditional sense because the model itself is differentiated. Students can take as much time as they need to master ideas because they are not pushed for time by the logistics of the system, which needs to move on because everyone else in the class is ready to do so. This model is a personal one, where the student has a choice over the direction and pace of learning, supported and guided by their expert teacher.
Differentiation is a noble effort by teachers to patch up the gaping hole in the traditional model of education, but even at it’s very best, it fails to provide a personal learning experience for students and it inevitably leaves gaps in students’ knowledge. For sure, differentiating for your students is better than not, and it’s certainly not doing anyone any harm, but it’s not the solution for providing a world-class education for individuals.
*Perhaps even in time, through multiple courses, or through a bespoke journey across a number of courses, but maybe I’m getting ahead of myself for this post!