Rescuing Differentiation from the Checklist of Bad Practice.

I’m not exactly sure why but it feels like, as a profession, we’ve made a mess of the concepts and language that apply to the everyday processes needed to teach a wide range of students within one class.  A range of what? Attainment, ability, experience, competence, knowledge, skill, confidence, fluency? Most likely a mix of all of these things (they’re all ways of quantifying types of knowledge in the end).  Here let’s call them ‘fluency levels’.

Let’s be grounded for a minute. It’s uncontroversial – totally obvious – that not all learners learn things at the same rate, short-term or long-term.  It’s a very common experience – and often a major challenge and concern –  that teaching can be very hard when, in one class, the range of learners’ fluency levels is wide.   How do you stretch everyone, teaching those reaching the top levels to go further, never holding anyone back, whilst ensuring those at the lowest levels within that particular curriculum area are supported or accelerated? This isn’t easy – and it doesn’t pay to diminish or deny this very real experience.

However, over the years, the word ‘differentiation’ has been morphed and distorted and, in classic system-over-sense style has been reduced to mean something narrow and mechanistic: the mandatory provision of different tasks for students of different abilities.  With this definition, the evidence for the act of differentiating – the evidence that SLTs and inspectors have sought in millions of lessons – is the existence of manifestly different tasks at different levels of difficulty, suited to the levels of the learners.  I’ve reported before my dismay at being involved in a joint inspectorial lesson observation of one of the best teachers I’ve ever known when his lesson was deemed to be only Good and not Outstanding because the conspicuous presence of different tasks and objectives was conspicuously absent.  Determinedly so. It wasn’t appropriate or necessary – but, hey, rules are rules!

Very commonly, this bit of reductive thinking has been linked to writing differentiated learning objectives.  The need for these is still firmly embedded into the psyche of way too many teachers.  I see it all the time. Powerpoints and whiteboards everywhere are routinely peppered with hideous tiered LOs: Must, should, could; All, Most, Some; Core, Challenge, Mega Challenge.   This has the effect of explicitly setting lower expectations for students at different levels within a class.  Some parts of the curriculum are only for ‘some’ – not all.  It’s explicit. Intentional.  And this is wrong-headed. A recipe for systematic underachievement and gap-widening.   It was this situation that led us to call the Oldham College CPD programme ‘Teaching for Distinction’ to get away from a tendency for people to aim at Pass with Merit and Distinction grades as some kind of optional bonus.  Instead we say everyone should be aiming for Distinction; ‘excellence’ should be defined, aspirational for all and aimed for explicitly.

A much better, wiser and more effective notion of differentiation is that it applies to the level of support and scaffolding learners need to reach common, aspirational learning goals. We’re all aiming for the top of the mountain – but some of us will need more help, more guidance, more time.  In mindset terms, this is an important shift.  Scaffolding can be taken down… it’s temporary support.  In practical terms, it means you set the same learning objectives for everyone within the curriculum area in hand and plan different ways to support students to get there.   This could be different degrees of guided practice focusing on specific parts of the learning sequence, different forms of writing scaffold or different modes of responsive questioning and feedback, tailored to push students forward from wherever they are.

However, in the language of the recent Ofsted framework consultation output, apparently this is not differentiation; this is called ‘adapting teaching in a responsive way’..’for example by providing focused support to pupils who are not making progress’.

Now, this is where I think we’re losing it.  In order to rid ourselves of stupid mechanistic tick-box behaviours, it seems that Ofsted and other differentiation critiques are suggesting we dance around the actual word ‘differentiation’ – it’s been sort of placed on a banned listed.  But this is madness. It won’t stick.  The truth is that, in many situations, there will be a hair’s breadth between ‘adapting teaching in a responsive way’ and ‘creating distinct tasks’.  It seems ludicrous to draw a purist line where none need exist.

I’ve got as much faith in the averaged-out studies that show ‘differentiation doesn’t work’ as I have in those that say, ‘homework doesn’t work’.  For sure some interventions will be a total dud but it all depends precisely on the context, the exact nature of the tasks, the students’ age, prior knowledge and so on.  In reality, there is no one definable thing that is ‘differentiation’ – it manifests itself in a million possible ways.

I could write a long list of scaffolding methods designed to lead all students to the same ultimate high challenge learning goals that, to all intents and purposes, manifest themselves as ‘distinct tasks’ in the short-term.

If we start learning the violin in a beginners’ class (as I have done), pretty soon we’ve diverged and different people can play harder pieces than others.  We start practising different things  and need support with different things.  Let’s go off-piste and look at skiing. (Boom-tish!) You move from nursery slope to green to red to black.  Within the goal of ‘being able to ski like a demon’, you engage in manifestly different levels of practice in very different conditions on that path.  A mixed ability ski group would require you to set up very different tasks to achieve the level of practice needed. This is hard so, in reality, the best skier in a mixed group does quite a lot of waiting for the others.

What about maths?  Within any maths class, even those that are tightly banded, you get a range of learning rates.  However you adapt your teaching, there will be some divergence and at any given time, students will move onto the next exercise at different times.  It’s inevitable.  Sometimes the divergence is so great that arguably it becomes a different sub-topic, not just a different task.  Now – is this not differentiation by any other name? Or is this ‘adapting teaching in a responsive way’?  If you plan the adaptations in advance they can look for all the world like different tasks.

What about history? It could be that the objective of demonstrating deep knowledge of the topic by writing a superb analytical essay is a common goal but, because of divergent levels of fluency with recall of the narrative elements and understanding of the underlying themes, some students need more practice with piecing the basic story together at one level while others are flying off making connections and comparing subtly different interpretations.  The title of the work might be the same but what they need to do could be quite different – because of where they’d got to before.  I’ve known a history class where the two A/A* students were in with 18 or so C-to-E students – a random result of individual option selections. There, call it what you like but ‘different tasks’ were more or less necessary every lesson.  If you think that’s wrong – I’d like to see you try!

I think it’s instructive to think about developing growth mindsets and building the capacity for good self-regulation through a process of engineering incremental degrees of success, building confidence through effort and determination applied to specific learning strategies. But, if Rosenshine is correct, we need to think about the optimum success rate being around 80% – and that is not going to be true for a range of learners if we’re giving them all the same tasks and the same levels of support.  Divergence in some form is inevitable; de facto is happens all the time and, for most teachers, has already happened before students arrive at your door. So – what do we do?

I think the issue is not with the word differentiation. It’s a widely used term that teachers use to refer to the process of meeting the challenges described above.  The problem lies with the crass mechanistic tick-list approach that’s been taken with evidencing it.  It’s another of those things drummed into us in the dark years of Ofsted stupidity that, along with grading lessons, can’t be wiped away easily by a bit of myth-busting literature.  I’d rather we were talking about effective and ineffective differentiation – just as we should talk about effective questioning, effective homework, effective collaborative learning, effective retrieval practice, effective instruction.  If we get bogged down with this hair-splitting ‘no true Scotsman’ pedantry –  ‘that’s not differentiation that’s adapting teaching’    –  the shutters will come down.  Go away with your faddish redefinitions, I’ve got classes to prepare. 

The common-sense thing is just to explore and re-establish the meaning – not to ditch the word. Good differentiation is this: common high-challenge learning objectives defined in detail with steps to success mapped out; scaffolding planned with guided practice leading to independent practice.  It means looking at the interesting variety of ways teachers support and scaffold students to reach ambitious goals over time (like a gardener tending their plants -one by one, not necessarily simultaneously) and not mandating idiot-box requirements like different worksheets or a certain number of levels of task in any given moment.

There you go; differentiation saved; restored.

Come on,  let’s not lose the plot and create yet more stupidity out of the old.



  1. A genuine thank you…

    Having spent days earlier in the week advocating my understanding of differentiation for learners for a job application, I woke up to a blog that made me feel like a complete idiot and demoralised. Perhaps I should not be so easily influenced by one blog but when it attacks something you feel passionate about its easier said than done!

    You have reaffirmed what I believe to be differentiation, and highlighted the real issue.

    Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I totally agree that differentiation should be aimed at helping learners reach aspirational goals. Our school policy is that we use all, most, some as a first line of differentiation. To this end, my all most some is written like this, for example:
    All will analyse how language creates a frightening affect on the reader.
    Most will analyse how language creates a frightening affect on the reader with some help.
    Some will analyse how language creates a frightening affect on the reader with very little help.

    Or similar, based on the group set. The differentiation within the A/M/S is about levels of help rather than asking some people to do less than others, which is what A/M/S is asking for. I don’t know what your thoughts are on this, but any guidance you think necessary would be greatly received.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Absolutely agree on this one. In the context of small schools with as many as three year groups in one class, devising distinctively different tasks is a nightmare. The inevitable outcome of such an approach is the fixing of a ‘glass ceiling’ on the aspirations of pupils deemed to be requiring the low ability learning objective, time after time. We prefer the ‘fall-away’ lesson (or series of lessons) where we all aim for the same learning objective and begin at the same starting point, an activation of prior knowledge. The teaching then proceeds with guided practice interspersed with checking of understanding. The point at which children demonstrate they have a reasonably secure correct version of the learning, they ‘fall-away’ from the main group and start their independent practice (which can be tweaked for level of challenge). When we teach this model to our ITT students, it’s like watching the scales fall from their eyes as they discover some semblance of coherence and direction in their lessons.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Just checking, do you believe that growth mindsets are actually a thing?
    If so, can you please point me at some conclusive evidence. (Please do not say Dweck)
    I am just about to research this for my Masters, and in truth I am a bit of a sceptic. However, I am trying to approach this with an open mind, so I would be grateful for pointers from a believer.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m almost fully with you here Tom. However, almost three years ago now I wrote a post advocating a notion of ‘adaptation’ rather than ‘differentiation’ – my thrust being that the word ‘differentiate’ suggests a deliberate act of trying to discriminate differences between learners whether or not they really make a difference to how you could best teach the matter at hand.

    Essentially I was (am) against an over-enthusiastic drive towards the assumed perfection to be found in uber-personalisation (certainly at the Primary level). I think it’s grounded in a vain and naive belief in our god-like abilities to completely know the child in front of us – their history, the challenges currently facing them and future path they’re going to have to travel.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The issue with differentation as a word is that it permits old flawed practices to hide there continued existence. A new word or phrase like stretch and challenge avoids this. However if the word usage is clearly defined as “responding to the different needs and progress of each student” and explicitily rejects defaultly setting multiple learning tiers then no problem. Frankly defining word usage at the beging of a document would be a beneficial practice.


  7. […] ‘Teaching to the top’ has gone too far? . I’m someone who has promoted teaching to the top for decades. Why? Because I’ve seen too many high achieving students be systematically under-challenged. It’s no good for them or any class of students if the material is too easy for people. The problem is that down at grade 3/4, the work patently isn’t too easy. Not at all. It’s bloomin’ hard! Those students don’t benefit from ‘raising the bar’ because they can’t get over the bar where it is. They need to work harder practising the lower-end material, not be forced to continually fail with higher-end material. This is where I feel debates about differentiation and setting go awry. In some situations, you do need to tailor the level of scaffolding and practice so that students in the lower third are consolidating, not floundering – all without putting a cap on their expectations. Easier said than done – but has to be done. See Rescuing Differentiation from the Checklist of Bad Practice. […]


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