DIFFERENTIATION – WHAT and HOW?
A few decades ago the world of education was very exercised by the forerunner of differentiation which was called ‘mixed ability teaching’. Then people began to realise it was not just ability that could be “mixed’’ and that teachers had to cope with a plethora of differences: learning style, age, motivation, prior learning and experience, gender, specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, and so on. Consequently the term ‘mixed ability’ began to be replaced by the less vivid term: ‘differentiation’. But what does differentiation mean exactly?
Differentiation is an approach to teaching that attempts to ensure that all students learn well, despite their many differences. Catch phrases which go some way to capturing this concept include: ‘Coping with differences’.
‘Learning for all’ or
‘Success for all’.
There are a number of common misconceptions about differentiation. Some believe that it is something ‘added on’ to normal teaching and that it just requires a few discrete extra activities in the lesson. In fact, differentiation permeates everything a good teacher does and it is often impossible to ‘point’ to a discrete event that achieves it. It is not what is done often, but the way it is done that acheives differentiation. For this reason differentiation may not show up on a lesson plan or in the Scheme of Work. However some teachers try to show their intentions to differentiate by setting objectives in the following format:
A few might…
This may help novice teachers to think about the diversity of their learners, but having such objectives does not guarantee differentiation. It is the strategies, not the objectives that achieve differentiation, and this should be the focus of our interests.
Differentiation is not new, good teachers have always done it. However, it does chime with a new conception of the teacher’s role. Once we teachers taught courses, subjects and classes. But no more. Now we are teaching individuals. Once education was a sieve. The weaker students were ‘seived out’ and they left the classroom for the world of work, while the able students were retained for the next level. ‘Drop outs’ were planned for, and seen not just as inevitable but as desirable. Put bluntly, the aim was to discover those who could not cope, and get rid of them.
But now education is a ladder, and we expect every learner to climb as fast and as high as they are able. ‘Drop outs’ are seen as a wasted opportunity, for the learners, and for society as a whole.
Underpinning these conceptions of education as being a sieve or a ladder, are assumptions about the capability of learners and the nature of learning. Once learners were thought to have a genetic disposition for learning, or not, which was measured by their ‘IQ’. This placed an upper limit on their possible achievement. Some students were thought to reach their ‘ceiling’ after which further teaching would be in vain.
This is no longer thought to be the case. Experts on the brain and on learning now stress that everyone can learn more, if they are taught appropriately, whatever they have previously acheived. A vivid illustration of this is provided by the work of Professor Reuven Feuerstien. He teaches learners with what we call ‘moderate learning difficulties’, using a very special and unusual programme involving intensive work for one hour a day every day. Four years later these learners have ‘caught up’ and are found to have an average ‘IQ’. They can live independent lives, learn normally, and are indistinguishable from average members of their societies.*
Needless to say, remnants of the ‘ceiling’ model of learning can still be found in many teachers’ conceptions of teaching and learning. These ideas need to be tackled. Luckily in most colleges examples can be found of students who entered the college on a level 1 programme, and progressed well,...
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