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Sunday, 4 May 2014

Does Differentiation Limit Possibilities for success?

As an experienced primary school teacher I have heard the word differentiation constantly throughout my career in a variety of guises: Differentiated learning, Differentiation by outcome, Differentiation by expectation, Differentiated activities, Differentiated curriculum, Differentiated questioning ....... the list is endless!

All teachers expect all of their pupils to achieve and progress. However, that expectation is very often defined by the level the pupil brings from the last class or setting. I believe that differentiation and expectation are inextricably linked. If a pupil comes into a class with a low level, the expectation of that pupil is lower. Therefore when the teacher differentiates for that pupils they will be given the 'lower' task and a cycle begins which is often very difficult for the pupil to break free from. Lower level, lower expectation, lower differentiated task, lower level  ..............

Differentiation has always been part of my planning and daily teaching without me really thinking about it too much. I have, over the years thought about how differentiating can help but how it can also hinder but these have really just been brief thoughts which have not really led to much of a change in the way I teach. I think this is mainly due to the fact that differentiation has always been so deeply entrenched in education and  it is one of those words that has 'stuck' in terms of its relevance and indeed fashion in education.

There have however been two recent events which have brought it back to the forefront of my mind and have really made me consider the whole thorny issue of differentiation much more deeply.

The first event has been my grandson starting school. He is a very confident little boy with the adults he knows and trusts, he has a wide vocabulary and very well developed speech. He is a very physically active boy who loves to play outside but he is not interested in football or cycling. His interests lay much more with science, mini beasts, trees, plants and loves to play in the garden, on the beach, in the woods or the park. He has a wide circle of friends in school and is a very sociable boy with his peers but until recently he was painfully shy around adults he didn't know.

Sadly his shyness has had a huge impact upon his education. He attended preschool but due to his shyness was pretty much left to it, he played with his friends but did not interact with the adults. This resulted in lots of his early learning goals apparently not being achieved. My daughter, his Mummy is a first time Mum and did not really 'get on' to this at that stage. My grandson then went onto Foundations Stage 2 in a completely different setting as the school he attends did not have a preschool. For him this meant starting again with unfamiliar adults and subsequently he got on very well with his peers but did not interact with the adults, this was compounded for him, by having two teachers one for two and a half days and then the other for two and a half days. I'm sure you can guess whats next, he then went up to year 1 'behind' lots of his peers. One of his teachers reassured his Mummy that he would 'catch up' as he did not have 'special needs.' We are now into the last term of year 1 and his Mummy has been told he is a 'working towards' in maths, reading and writing!

As an experienced teacher it is very difficult to also be a parent and even worse to be a grandparent and going into school. You clearly have lots of knowledge but also know what it is like for the teacher to have those moaning parent/grandparents who come into to school. So, until this point, I had stayed 'out of it' and left my daughter to handle it herself, though obviously I have supported my grandson and daughter by assisting with reading, giving him extra tuition and encouragement at home. However, when it comes to the school I stayed out of it. Until parents evening at the end of the last term (his first of the year!) which I attended and until my daughter received that last report!

In his past parents evening his teachers main message was, he is very quiet with adults but getting more confident, he has a large friendship group and is confident with his peers, he is 'catching up' with reading and writing and had no problems with maths and he does not have special needs. Now obviously due to my experience I know he does not have any special needs. My assessment of him is that he is a reluctant writer (typical boy) he has struggled with reading but is now using his phonics really well, he blends etc. and he is good at maths. He also has lots and lots of support at home, well developed language and has had lots of experiences. None of these facts link up to a 'W' in Spring term year 1. So what do I attribute this low level of assessment? This is probably two fold: Firstly his shyness which has clearly, though not rightly been a barrier to his learning. Secondly, I believe he has been the victim of low expectation and has been set differentiated work of the lowest level within his setting.

The second event which has really made me reflect upon the whole issue of expectation and the subsequent differentiation is a video clip I came across on Twitter based upon the Pygmalion effect. See the video here.

Watching this video for me was an epiphany! I know I have been guilty at times of sub consciously limiting the progress of my pupils by putting them into groups, and whilst having expectations that they make progress I have then let that expectation be limited by my preconception of their ability. I have always extended the 'more able' and the 'middle' group but not always the 'lower ability' groups and that thought horrifies me. Whilst I am not happy with that revelation I think it is actually a positive one because as teachers we have to constantly reflect upon and refine our practice. Teaching is an ever evolving skill which changes constantly. Some of those changes are thrust upon us, some come about as a result of CPD, some as a result of experience and some as a result of our own reflections.

So how will this epiphany change my day to day practice? My first thought is vastly! I will, where avoid putting my pupils into 'ability' groups. Differentiation will exist but will be much more discrete, there will be a choice of activities to complete (increasing in difficulty) but the children will choose the activity that they would like to complete rather than me deciding for them. This 'choice' will be in
the form of a traffic lights system, some pupils will probably, initially choose the activity that is too easy but this is easily managed. Pupils will be placed in mixed ability groups and expectations of every pupil will be high. I will do my best to ensure that none of my pupils find themselves on a vicious cycle of low expectations. 

I will also try to encourage my grandsons teacher to watch ' the' video too!