I have been thinking a lot about differentiation over the past few weeks. For the benefit of any parents who may be unsure what this word means, it is something that is always referred to as a way of changing elements of the lesson to suit the learners within. Differentiation can include a several elements within a lesson that can be varied or pitched to different constituent groups. These elements can include the pace of delivery, the difficulty of a worksheet, the expected output of the learner, the grouping of the learners, the support given in assessment, or the entire task itself. These can all make a real difference to these learners. The constituent groups I referenced will normally involve the lower, middle and higher abilities in a mixed ability class; although jargon may replace these basic categories. This all makes sense. It is rational, reasonable, structured and considered. These variations do make a difference and are of benefit. BUT, my problem with the accepted meaning of differentiation is the word Learner, which is always present when a definition is sought. We do not have regimented, focused and pure learners in our classrooms, we have children. When they enter our classrooms, they are still children and their experiences, motivations and external environments continue to influence their behaviour, attitude and capacity to do well. The parental situation at home, the amount of sleep they have had, their relationship with their peers or their perception of how the teacher views them (to name but a few) all have an influence. Therefore, they are not learners so much as children whom we would like to help to learn well.
For me this child/learner label is a significant difference because like so many aspects of education and learning, differentiation does not fit into these easily defined and well-versed phrases that teachers are taught to use. It is both too simplistic and too complicated to suggest that changing pace, worksheets or seating plans will suddenly make the classroom a utopian, neutral environment where every child will receive tuition that enables equal levels of progress or attainment. It is too simple because children are far more complicated than the elements of a lesson plan listed in the first paragraph, and it is too complicated because what teachers really need to do is simply know every child in front of them. If they know these children, if they really know these children, they will understand what motivates them, what delights them and what scares them in the classroom. They will know when to change the tone of the delivery to engage them, when it is good to use a metaphor or when to give some support; which may be an explanation, but could just as easily be a smile.
When I observe lessons, it is these things that help me identify when I am watching an expert in their field. A lesson plan can only show so much, as can the scrutiny of several children’s work; which inspectors often look to for confirmation of differentiation. I have been lucky to see many such lessons. I believe that we should always teach to the highest level; the A* or no. 9. That is the way to raise standards of achievement and schools that are successful do this by the teachers knowing the children in front of them. If they know each child, they can know a little of the learners within.