At heart, differentiation is informed, rational challenge, with the teacher having appropriate expectations of the range of learners and the individuals within the group, responding to issues as they arise and reflecting on the outcomes to determine the next steps.
It is interesting to explore how concepts are built up over time. The notion of differentiation became a “thing” more recently, especially in planning demands, but, in doing so, may have lost many of the more nuanced interpretations that had been part of earlier approaches. When I started teaching, we spoke of match and challenge.
I’ve been pondering the idea of differentiation as “informed dialogue” with learners. Part of this comes from my activities with trainees on a number of routes. What kind of dialogue do you have with a new acquaintance? Superficial, or deep and meaningful?
The absence of evidence across the 4-16/18 age range could be seen as a significant disadvantage in supporting decisions, which is why in other posts, I have suggested local, school based portfolios, leading to a broader picture.
Trainees and early career teachers don’t always have this range of understanding, as their experiences may have been restricted to specific classes. Some supply teachers could be in this position and I suppose a case could be made that Secondary teachers who only see learners a couple of times a week might also be in this group. This lack of understanding can lead to more generic, directive language, rather than dialogue; activity can be greater than the learning.
Stylised approaches, such as “all, most and some” with “bronze, silver and gold” alternatives, suggest challenge, but, in reality miss the point of focusing challenge in the right place. Visiting classes where the upper challenge could only be tackled when the lower challenges had been achieved suggested that the teacher did not have sufficient knowledge of the learners and that the more able should have been challenged at a higher level from the beginning.
Knowledge of the wider expectation enables reflection on the needs of a class within that range. If, as a Primary teacher, you receive a different class each year, you start almost from scratch. While you may have come across members of the new class beforehand and may have had some transition time with them, they can still appear as an amorphous mass in September, so the initial teaching is also more nebulous as the teacher begins to tease out the individuals, with generic questions leading to more detailed follow up from answers. You get to know the children through the interactions, which lead to ever more nuanced dialogue.
The learning dialogue continue into tasking where challenges become more nuanced as the term and the year progresses. This tweaking and adapting to articulated need is the essential aspect of more personalised approaches. It is a case of getting closer to the learners, so that the impact of the multiple 1:1 conversations is purposeful and effective.
So, as time passes and the number of discussions builds, each supplying information to the participants, the teacher can challenge in more detailed fashion, while the learners can respond in kind. With nuanced outcomes comes focused coaching and feedback, which should, over time lead to progress.
Of course, the underpinning of this is dialogue, teachers and learners talking about the learning. In a classroom where dialogue is absent, the basis for focused, formative discussions may be absent, diminishing the learning experience for learners and teachers.
Learners need something of quality to think about, to explore and to talk about. In talking, they show aspects, if not all, of their thinking. This gives aware teachers a clue as to next steps, for individuals and as a whole, which is the essence of informed teaching and learning. Talking learning supports all aspects of the teaching and learning cycle, as the evidence base is greater.