A Critique of Differentiation

Differentiation has become something of a talking point in education currently and I think it is important to discuss both the kinds of differentiation educators can use as well as some of the problems differentiation presents to student learning and progress. In doing this I will examine three different forms of differentiation, that is, differentiation by learning style, by task, and by process/outcome. I want to make it clear from the start that I am not trying to express the opinion that differentiation is ineffective or detrimental to learning, in fact, I believe the opposite to be true. However, I do believe that recently we (as educators and administrators) have become so focused on differentiation that we have started to see it as the be all and end all of good teaching practice, instead of what it should be, one of many tools employed by an outstanding educator to foster learning and student progress. In short, I think problems of differentiation point to a larger issue surrounding whether we have the responsibility as educators to prepare students for the next stage of their lives (the working world) or whether we are tasked with the obligation of fostering a better student and life long learner. As we shall see I think differentiation is at the heart of this problem.

Before we discuss some of the inherent problems of differentiation, I would like to start by examining the different forms differentiation takes in modern classrooms. The first form of differentiation I will discuss is what I would call differentiation by learning style. I believe this to be one of the most popular forms of differentiation as it is one that I remember being constantly reminded of in my B.ED studies. I am also aware that recently this has perhaps become the most controversial form of differentiation as scholars and educational theorists are rethinking the concept of differentiation by learning style. Unlike the other two forms of differentiation I will look at, this form of differentiation is something that the teacher actively does in the course of their lesson, whereas the other forms of differentiation we will examine are performed by the student or are informed by what the student does, an important distinction. Essentially, what differentiation by learning style is according to my definition and understanding is when a teacher varies their approach to lesson delivery to account for the various different learning styles of the class they have in front of them. So for example, a educator may use a brief teacher led lecture at the front of the room to appeal to auditory learners (those who thrive at learning by listening) and then vary the approach by continuing the lesson through showing the class a series of images or graphs which appeal to the visual learners in the class (those who learn best by watching or seeing something) and then finally giving the class a series of challenges which can take many forms in order to appeal to the kinesthetic learners (those who learn best by doing).

A second form of differentiation commonly used is that of differentiation by task. Differentiation by task is when teachers give students the opportunity to best show off what they have learnt during the course of a single lesson or series of lessons. This can represent a formative piece of work or a summative work that will be evaluated. What this looks like in theory is when a teacher wishes the student to produce a product that demonstrates their learning while also allowing the student to choose the vehicle by which this learning is conveyed. An example of this in practice could be that after a series of lessons on Plato’s allegory of the cave a teacher wishes their students to demonstrate what they’ve learnt about Plato’s philosophy from this story. The students are given a list of requirements that their projects must fulfill (these must get at the heart of what the teacher is looking for and must not be too prescriptive or it will limit students choice in what they produce). From here the students have the ability to take responsibility for demonstrating their learning whilst also appealing to their individual strengths. When this project is collected a teacher may receive everything from a written essay, a collage, a poem, or a short film. The idea being that as long as each of these products demonstrate that the students have learned the required material and met the general requirements the teacher has given, then differentiation by task has occurred and been successful. A similar way of achieving this is by giving students a choice of activities to complete to demonstrate their knowledge of a topic, so for instance at the end of a lesson you may ask students to complete one of three activities to show what they have learnt during the lesson and you may restrict this choice to a written piece, a poster, or a report. Here the students are given some opportunity to choose but are limited in that choice to the styles you have outlined for them.

A third and final form of differentiation we will examine is differentiation by process/outcome. This form of differentiation is directly related to differentiation by task however instead of focusing on allowing students to choose the vehicle by which they convey their knowledge, differentiation by process/outcome focuses on what our expectations of individual students should be in assessing the final product. I have chosen to also label this as differentiation by process as it is not simply about accounting for the different intellectual ability of each student, but also about knowing which students need more guidance during the process or production of their final piece (irrespective of intellectual ability). Using the above example of the teacher looking for a demonstration of Plato’s philosophy, differentiation by process/outcome in practice means that some of our higher ability students may produce a written essay with almost no help or guidance, whilst some of our lower ability students will produce a written report with the aid of a writing frame to help them structure their work. Likewise, while some of our higher ability students may produce a painting which captures the essence of Plato’s philosophy, again with little to no guidance, our lower ability students may produce a painting after several consultations with the teacher about what a good painting needs to include in order to reach the desired result.

Now that we have examined the different types or kinds of differentiation, let us now examine some of the problems differentiation presents. One fundamental problem I have with differentiation by learning style is not the theory in itself, but instead what the theory has tended to look like in practice. What I mean by this is that we seem to be embracing every form of differentiation, save one, and that is what I would call a traditional learning style. Teachers currently are so pressured to be new and cutting edge that when we see a teacher employing more traditional methods of learning we tend to criticize. What I mean by traditional ways of learning are what most of us would likely recall when we think back to our own educations, that is, a lecture style with a heavy reliance on using textbooks or other written sources and bookwork. Today this style of teaching is considered old fashioned and outdated, but I would argue that it has its place and is obviously effective at appealing to certain types of learners. The ironic thing about differentiation is that I know teachers who would hate to be a student in their own modern classrooms. We have differentiated ourselves away from what works for some students. With our current insistence on doing anything but what is considered traditional, I feel like we leave behind those students who would benefit from this approach, just as those students who hated this traditional lesson style were left behind when we were students because of our teachers refusal to adopt progressive teaching styles. In order to truly differentiate we need to accept the fact that sometimes it is ok to lecture and use textbooks. We need to be ok with embracing all different types of learning styles from lectures to group work, from auditory to kinesthetic. It must be at the professional discretion of the teacher to decide what learning style appropriate for what topic and to make effective judgments based on students needs.

A second problem of differentiation is not as easily solved. I think that this problem points to a fundamental choice we have to make as educators surrounding what our role is and what we are trying to achieve. The second problem I have with differentiation is based on differentiation by task and process/outcome. The problem being that as much as we cater to meet individual students needs, we have to acknowledge that this is something that is not largely done in the working world. In fact, for the most part this is not even largely done in schools themselves. We may give students the option to complete required work in vastly different ways throughout the year but ultimately at the end of the year or on a major assessment we only allow students to complete work one way, as a traditional written piece. Now I understand the benefits of allowing differentiation in order to inform students background knowledge and once this has been mastered allowing the students to demonstrate this knowledge in a traditional written form, but I think that what ends up happening is that we differentiate away from key skills that students need in order to be successful in these written tasks.

We are doing students a disservice when we allow them to create a poem, painting, or a short film all year in order to demonstrate their knowledge and then make them write a summative assessment through the completion of a written piece. Although I am only just starting my teaching career I have already experienced first hand the problem that this presents through marking exams of students that I know have the required knowledge in order to be successful but because of their lack of skill in demonstrating this knowledge in a traditional written form, they underperform. Similarly, when these students get out into the working world they will for the most part not be offered opportunities for differentiation. If asked by a boss to write a business report showing company earnings they will not be able to convey this information in a poem, painting, or short film.

Now as I’ve said, I believe in the value of differentiation, but I believe it poses a problem for educators. It asks us what we believe our role is in society. Is it the job of a teacher to help train and guide students and prepare them for life in the working world (in which differentiation by task and process/outcome should be discouraged), or, is the role of the teacher to convey knowledge and passion for learning to students by any means necessary (even if this is to the detriment of the students when they leave school and head out into the working world). The second of these options requires a fundamental shift in our society where we allow students to demonstrate knowledge in whatever vehicle they find most comfortable (even on final assessments and exams). It would also conceivably require the working world to make this adjustment as well. At the end of the day if the poem, painting, or short film conveys the companies earnings in a way that can be understood then why should it matter what form it takes?

Ultimately, I think there is a third solution to the dilemma of differentiation, which paradoxically requires us to embrace tradition in some ways and break away from it in others. In terms of differentiation by learning style, I think that we need to be more accepting of traditional styles of learning. It should not be the only style employed by an educator but one tool in a toolbox, to be used when needed. You cannot build a house using only a hammer, but that being said, it is hard to build a house without one as well. In terms of differentiation by task and process/outcome, I think we need to break away from tradition in the way we consistently assess and evaluate our students. We need to develop students writing skills in order for them to be successful in the working world and we should not be trying to differentiate students away from this. However we should also be encouraging our students to express themselves and display their interests in different mediums. This will mean changing our expectation that every important evaluative piece of work should consist largely of writing. If this can be accomplished then I believe that we as teachers can walk a middle path, one that prepares our students for the working world whilst allowing them to become both knowledgeable and creative lifelong learners.

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