Explainer: what is differentiation and why is it poorly understood?

Differentiation is about enabling all students to reach the same learning goal. from www.shutterstock.com

Differentiation is a long word that sounds complicated but it just means teachers plan for the children who are actually in their class, instead of designing lessons for their idea of the “average” child.

It is the means by which schools fulfil their legal obligations to provide a quality education to all students. This includes Indigenous students, students from other language backgrounds, gifted students or those with disability.

Why do we need to differentiate?

Children and teaching are both complex. Student diversity demands a more sophisticated approach to teaching, so that all children can achieve to the best of their potential.

The old approach to teaching is where teachers plan their lessons using a single method with contingency options, such as learning support, teacher aide time or after-hours tutoring, for the children who – for whatever reason – don’t happen to “get it” the first time.

This is unproductive because this “wait to fail” approach makes learning more difficult for many children and results in gaps that are costly to remediate.

All teachers will need to teach a diverse range of children during their career. So taking diversity into account by planning from the outset is not only better for students and teachers, but it saves time and is easier and more successful than a “one size fits all” approach.

What’s the problem?

The problem is that differentiation is poorly understood.

This lack of understanding is reflected in criticism describing it as “dumbing down” by “asking different students to complete different activities in the same class".

Actually, differentiation is about teachers providing choice to avoid discriminating against students who may be disadvantaged by “one size fits all” approaches. This does not mean creating different lessons for, or “simultaneously individually” instructing, every student.

It does mean that students with expressive language difficulties or dyspraxia, for example, who experience difficulties with writing are given the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in other ways.

This was famously demonstrated in the movie The Blind Side where Michael Oher’s teachers conducted oral assessments, enabling him to successfully demonstrate his learning.

It may also mean that teachers deliberately moderate instructional pace and linguistic complexity to account for students with language impairment and/or attentional difficulties (eg attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

This means teachers avoid multiple instructions and complex sentences. They use concrete rather than abstract language and they explain using straightforward analogies where possible. They intersperse whole-class teaching with group work, together with regular checks on students likely to experience difficulties in this area.

It does not mean that they engage in only one teaching method, or that they devise different lessons for every child. Rather, they employ the most appropriate methods at the most appropriate times.

The benefit is that the above strategies will support a whole range of children in addition to those with language or attentional difficulties. This includes, for example, students from a language background other than English, students with autism spectrum disorder, and students with hearing impairment.

A second criticism is that differentiation results in the lowering of expectations for particular students. It is really the opposite of reducing expectations.

Differentiation is underpinned by the principle that all children can learn when teachers use a variety of methods and when students have choice in how they demonstrate their learning.

This does not mean “watering down content”. In fact, planning to enable all students to reach the same learning goal – by varied means if necessary – is the fundamental point of differentiation.

Where can teachers find out more?

Teachers have multiple resources to draw upon to structure their curriculum, teaching and assessment choices.

One particularly well-developed and internationally known resource is Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

UDL is a framework informed by a large body of research investigating the many different aspects of teaching and learning involved.

A key point underpinning UDL is that the learning goal is the same for all students in a class.

The “differentiation” is in the ways that information is presented. Students are provided with choices in how to approach and demonstrate their learning, and teachers engage their students using multiple methods.

UDL provides teachers with a framework to instead modify learning environments and teaching practices with a focus on the removal of barriers to participation and learning.

Is differentiation simply another “fad”?

Differentiation is not a fad. Adapting the language and pace of instruction and providing a range of options for students to demonstrate their learning is the essence of quality teaching.

Common criticisms of differentiation suggest that teaching should be easy and/or that classes should be homogeneous, but this is the educational equivalent of wishful thinking.

And it can result in discrimination.

Access and participation are the right of every student in Australia. The Disability Standards for Education are intended to support educators in understanding and implementing their obligations under national and international law.

Differentiation is a requirement under these standards and necessary to provide quality education for all.