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Differentiating- Offering a Hand up and Avoiding the Performance Trap

In his first blog for Nexus, Christopher Hill discusses differentiation. He shares how it should not simply be something to ‘tick a box’, but used effectively can help both students and teachers.

Ticking the Differentiation Box
In the early years of my career I had been encouraged to deliver what I now call tick box differentiation, the sort of differentiation that is explicit to any ‘visitors’ but was an unsustainable burden on workload and ultimately ineffective as it often served to ‘dumb down’ curriculum content as opposed to making academic rigour accessible and academic success attainable.
Examples of ‘tick box differentiation’ include:

  • Vocabulary lists that aren’t explicitly referred to in the lesson.
  • Writing frames that reduced both cognitive load and academic challenge.
  • Sentence starters that generate over dependence on the input of the teacher.
  • Pre-prepared model answers that are simply read out to the class.
  • ‘Cheat sheets’ that provide proxy answers as oppose to a framework to truly comprehend the requisite knowledge.
  • The pitch of the lesson is reduced because ‘lower prior attaining/SEND students can’t do X, Y or Z’.

These strategies and strategies like them tick the box of differentiation as they are clear for all observers to see, they are explicit to placate teacher guilt and they do allow students to deliver an end product that gives off the impression of learning. 
The Result: A Cross in the Box of Learning
Tick box differentiation is ineffective because it accepts the learning barrier faced by the given student and ‘manages’ it as opposed to attempt to transform the progress of the student, hold up high expectations of what was possible for them or equip them to experience success in the long term. Students when supported in this way have often simply pieced together the different supports offered to them, which means when asked to perform the same task independently, a gap in attainment emerges or the student rejects the academic challenge because those prompts are only temporarily available within their working memory. Placing a tick in the differentiation box results in a cross in the learning box because most of the learning (especially that around process to follow to perform a task) remains surface level and cursory. A short-term fix at best. 
Small Steps for Differentiation Success 
In response to the reflections I arrived at above, a rejection of this type differentiation and a move to explicit, well planned phases of scaffolding within lessons was needed to truly empower the students in my care and ensure that their learning barriers were responded to in a way that allowed them to hurdle those barriers in the medium to long term.
Examples of differentiation for deeper learning include:

  • Vocabulary lists that students are explicitly taught to use in detail (e.g. prefix, suffix, antonym, synonym and transferring the word class etc).
  • Writing frames that allow students to talk through their writing, prepare ideas and craft or own their writing (e.g. redraft, substitute words for better synonyms or remind about key aspects of mark scheme).
  • Sentence starters that are co-crafted with the class/cohort of students that need them. Generate a range of options for students to choose from that they are taught how to adapt or modify to create different points/arguments or meanings.
  • Pre-prepared model answers that are unpicked, explained and annotated. This should then be a launch point for students to co-craft a model with the teacher so they can have a worked through example in their mind when crafting their own answer/response to a question.
  • ‘Reminder sheets’ that provide students with references to return to in previous work, reminders of key concepts/ideas/knowledge or reminder of process to follow to successfully answer the question/complete the task.  For example, a student facing a learning barrier of spelling may be given the strategy or rule to guide the avoidance of repetition of the same mistakes.
  • The pitch remains the same but the journey to the end goal is elongated and smaller steps are put in place to build up each phase of learning in full before moving to the main task where students are expected to demonstrate the main body of their learning.

These strategies offer students a more robust learning opportunity that maintains high expectations and makes a more explicit effort to provide them with the tools to experience academic success independently of teacher support at key moments like standardised exam scenarios. The question became less about what students required to help them get through the learning challenges of the lesson and more about what was needed in order to experience success in learning by the end of the unit, assessment phase or final exam. This meant teaching the component parts of a successful end product explicitly in small steps over a series of lessons, as oppose to feeding students tick box differentiation to get through the equivalent ‘learning’ via a number of tasks that students perform.
Some questions to ask to break differentiation in small steps:

  • Will students be able to use that resource without being properly shown how to?
  • What were the deficiencies of learning seen in the last piece of work you marked?
  • What are the composite skills required to complete that task to expert level?
  • What are the steps that students need to complete that task successfully?
  • How can you teach each small step and how will you know that students have mastered a particular step?
  • How long will I need to take the student through each step?
  • What background knowledge will students need to feel confident with the learning challenges they will face (i.e. concepts/ideas/cultural capital)?

The Result: Learning Beyond the Surface Level
Differentiating in small steps gives students access to the empowering knowledge they need to overcome their barriers to learning as oppose to bypassing them via tick box differentiation. Although, a longer term approach with challenges along the way, it avoids leading students into the performance trap, whereby they are only able to demonstrate their learning and perform within an assessed task/standardised exam when such tick box solutions are offered, rendering them short changed by the differentiation they receive. Slower, steadier and more stepped uses of similar approaches is much more impactful in ensuring the learning required is not condemned to the temporary storage on the surface of the working memory but is embedded deeper within the long-term memory. In short, effective differentiation is about turning frameworks that have traditionally been provided to students on separate worksheets to cognitive frameworks students can call upon when required or prompted. To adequately support students to overcome learning barriers in the long term teachers need to create a ladder over the top of the ‘one off’ performance trap, ensuring each rung is carefully placed in small steps to ensure students don’t fall through a gap and reach the expert status expected of ALL students. Offer your students a hand up via small steps.

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The author

Christopher is particularly interested in how evidence informed practice can be used to narrow the disadvantaged attainment gaps and allow educators to own their professional learning. He also completed an MA in Education Leadership, with his dissertation (on the intersectionality of educational disadvantage) earning him an academic award and a score of 90 out of 100. In the past year he has been sharing evidence informed strategies and effective leadership advice via his blog: The blog is focused on ensuring that teaching with a moral purpose is simplified and made wellbeing friendly, allowing teachers to more effectively pursue a day when education can help to engender true social justice for all students.

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