Why I dislike differentiation… and why great learning and teaching is the best way to support ALL learners

According to Carol Tomlinson in How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability, ‘differentiation, is a framework or philosophy for effective teaching that involves providing all students within their diverse classroom community of learners a range of different avenues for understanding new information (often in the same classroom) in terms of: acquiring content; processing, constructing, or making sense of ideas; and developing teaching materials and assessment measures so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively, regardless of differences in their ability.’

Whilst I don’t have a problem with the concept that all learners, regardless of differences in their ability should be able to learn effectively, I do want to explore exactly what ‘a range of different avenues’ means. This blog post will look at what differentiation is and isn’t, as well as a closer inspection of what this might look like in the classroom more specifically, the art and design classroom.

I think there is a huge misconception about the meaning of the word differentiation. The fact that it contains the word ‘different’ has always irked me. Not because I believe that young people shouldn’t experience different levels of support and challenge, but instead that in some way or another young people will learn completely different things. Within education, I think there has been a tendency for differentiation to somehow mutate into an expectation of different outcomes for different learners. That might be different worksheets, different activities or my absolute pet hate success criteria which includes ‘all, most, some.’

Now before I go any further, I’m happy to admit that I’ve ‘been there, done that and got the T-shirt.’ When I first qualified as a teacher, I was encouraged to have different art outcomes for different young people. I have also tried differentiated worksheets, which quite frankly took such a great deal of time to create and ultimately caused more confusion in my classroom. And encouraged by a DHT I’ve tried ‘all most some,’ before building up the courage of my convictions and abandoning it because of my inability to see past the self-limiting statements. And now with a bit more experience under my belt, I think I have formed a better understanding of what differentiation, or ‘scaffolding’ as I prefer to think of it, is in the classroom.

To address differentiation, we need to teach everyone better.

I feel very strongly that as teachers, we need to have high aspirations that all students will learn everything within our curriculum. The journey might look different for each individual, but the destination for everyone should be the same. It’s also important to note that of course there are learners who need very specific support to complete tasks. I am not for a second suggesting that these are not valid or indeed necessary for specific pupils with identified needs. However what I am suggesting is that excellent learning and teaching benefits all learners, and by addressing our core business, every pupil benefits. Learners shouldn’t be taught different things using different pedagogies. Nor should we be trying to water down our content to create even bigger gaps in attainment. We should be ensuring that our learning and teaching is of the highest quality so that everyone has the chance to be successful.

‘When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.’ Confucius

So what could we consider as action steps? And what does this look like in the classroom?

Cognitive load

We often don’t do our students any favours in terms of the cognitive load we put on them within lessons. Consider the covid19 pandemic whereby everyone is affected yet the most vulnerable are the ones who suffer. If we don’t fully understand the impact of cognitive load, all our pupils will be impacted but it is our pupils who need extra support where this impact is felt most strongly. I would suggest that if teachers understand this theory, it would positively impact all our learners, but most notably those who might require additional support.

‘I’ve come to the conclusion that Sweller’s cognitive load theory is the single most important thing teachers should know.’ Dylan Wiliam

Usually unintentionally, we create cognitive overload for students. This is almost always well-meaning and from a place of wanting our learners to succeed but in actual fact it does the opposite. We sometimes give students vast amounts of information, PowerPoint slides jammed with images and text (sometimes too small to even read!) or lengthy instructions spoken by the teacher at the beginning of lessons to be remembered before they start work. In other ways, classrooms can often become a source of cognitive overload due to wall posters, distractions, visuals and decorations. I’ve seen first hand when sensory overload affects learners and it has given me a very different outlook on the way I set up my classroom and organise my lessons.

I didn’t learn anything about cognitive load whilst studying to be a teacher. Whilst a lot of CLT is common sense, and many teachers might be using these principles already without conscious knowledge, I’m pretty confident there might be others like me who would benefit from a better understanding of this in order to support all learners.

A great book to explore this is Ollie Lovell’s Cognitive load theory in Action if you would like to understand this in more detail.

Modelling

The use of a visualiser has totally transformed the support I am able to give students. I wrote more about modelling here but in terms of scaffolding, modelling is an excellent way to ensure all learners get specific help at any point in the lesson. Instead of trying to remember the spoken information and instructions given during a live demonstration at the start, the visualiser allows this to be taken a step further by supporting pupils throughout the lesson, in real time as a piece of work or learning develops. In a practical subject this is particularly useful. I can be doing the task alongside the pupils on the visualiser and they can watch initially before setting to work themselves. I then usually scan the room to ensure everyone is coping – pupils know that if I bypass them without comment then they are on track. At that initial stage, I can determine where common errors are being made and use these to direct learning when I return to the visualiser. Or I can offer one to one support if necessary. Pupils can use the continued support if required by checking in with my modelling on the screen, or if they are confident in their learning, they can continue independently.

In our department, catapulted by online learning, we have also taken this a step further by creating demonstration videos which are shared with pupils. This allows them to pause, rewind, rewatch on their own device during a lesson and gain support on the individualised aspects they are struggling with, at their own pace. In a room where there are often 20 young people, and only one subject specialist teacher, it allows each pupil to have access to their own personal instruction, at their pace. I feel this is a huge support in terms of scaffolding, as well as addressing the common issues of cognitive overload. Yes, creating a video is time consuming but if our aim is to support each learner in the individual way they need supported, this goes a long way to achieving that. And by ensuring the videos we create are focussed on the key learning rather than a specific outcome or exam related task which may change, their longevity and lifespan is increased. It also reflects the idea that differentiation isn’t about changing the outcome we expect from pupils – everyone is working towards the same goal – but the length of the journey, and the steps to get there might be different.

Desirable difficulty

I feel strongly that ‘differentiation’ is not about simplifying the task. Again, I’ve written a bit about this here. Learning is difficult. To learn something is a challenge. To feel proud of our learning, we need to know that it has been an achievement and we want to feel a sense of accomplishment. If we make the learning too easy, there’s little satisfaction in moving forward. For example, in art and design we are learning to draw a building. Some learners might find this difficult. To differentiate this, we adapt the steps that learners need to practise to get there. Showing learners where to look and guiding their eye. Breaking it down into simple shapes. Discussing the angles and using a pencil to measure. Starting lightly and building the strength of our marks. We give them the tools to think and see like an artist. What we don’t do, is tell them to trace it on a light box. Or give them a simpler clip art building to copy. Or let them colour in one the teacher has drawn. Not all learners will need all of the support steps. But that’s the beauty of scaffolding as opposed differentiating. In other subject areas, we might support learners with difficult learning through sentence starters or writing frames. ‘I do, we do, you do’ is another excellent way of allowing the learner to build confidence – again very useful in practical subjects. Initially learners will watch the expert, then use guided practice before progressing to independent practice.

I think art and design teachers are generally really good at differentiation. We are used to working with young people and adults, who find our subject challenging. Very often these are highly academic students who really struggle to draw or create. It’s often rewarding to see students who find other subjects difficult, excelling in art and design. Whatever their experience or their ability – and a key point is we don’t always know – we would be doing them a huge disservice if we labelled what they were capapsble of and didn’t support them individually to aspire to be the very best artist possible. In doing so we ensure equity and aspiration for all.

Thanks for reading and please share your thoughts. Have a good week.

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