Us vs Them vs I: Another look at Differentiation

Before leaving his post as Education Secretary, Michael Gove left as a parting gift, an assessment regime hinged entirely upon examination. By eliminating coursework, students are now expected to demonstrate their academic progress in a series of exams, just like the good old days. The upshot of this is that teachers are under increasing pressure to steer learning away from a shared experience. Now, this blog post is not the place to debate the pros and cons of exam-centered assessment, but I do wonder if the wider debate over collective learning (and collective assessment)  has been woefully overlooked.

The current educational landscape has made the exams game almost aggressively individualistic. High university fees, competition for places and reliance upon exam performance means that students are fighting the world to get their place in the world. It’s no surprise that the number of EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) applicants has doubled to 35,000 this year since 2010. Students are realising that they need to stand out; they need to be different. You can blame Capitalism – a free market approach to education will always tend towards individualism.

Now, there’s a fairly long list of things that can take a teacher from nought to inadequate in 60 seconds, and differentiation is fairly high on that list. Nothing can quite generate those nauseating feelings of guilt like the realisation that you haven’t quite taken into account the varying ability levels of your class – one of the reasons that differentiation continues to be a hot focal point in teacher training and performance management. The underlying logic is clear; the best teaching will be tailored to the specific needs of individual students, as opposed to a ‘best fit’ approach that might overshoot subtle nuances.

In my time as department lead, I have, every assessment interim, been required to analyse data and offer commentary as to the progress of various cohorts. And at the end of it the desired action was always clear: sit down with each teacher in my department and work out a strategy for each ‘Red Alert’ student in their class (as identified by the data crunch).

Again, the underlying logic is clear; the apex of good differentiation is personalisation. It then becomes the job of the teacher to work out the specifics of each student’s needs, which, of course, leads to huge amounts of anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.

As a so-called ‘middle manager’, I have felt it my responsibility to ensure that, anxiety aside, proper differentiation takes place. So, after every interim I would diligently schedule an action plan meeting with each of my colleagues and work out how best to meet the needs of students X, Y and Z. Which, of course we never really followed up on. We’d have the meeting, the next interim would roll round, and I would, with a little knot of guilt, start the differentiation dance all over again.

None of this, I think, makes me a bad middle manager. There’s something about differentiation which is mirage-like and almost ephemeral. It seems doable in theory but in practical application quickly spirals into poorly tweaked resources, or ad hoc minutes spent during lessons.

Which might explain the evolution of my lesson observations during the year. A few half terms of drifting in and out of lessons to observe practice and identify examples of good teaching resulted in the following list of questions:

How do your students know when they are doing well?

How do your students know what good work looks like?

How do your students know what a ‘well’ classroom looks/ feels like?

When do your students have Autonomy?

When do your students have Relatedness?

When do your students have the chance to show Competence?

Does your class have a culture or sub-culture?

The interesting thing about this list is that it refers exclusively to students plural as opposed to student singular. Somewhere in my understanding of performance management, it had become apparent that a holistic approach to classroom analysis was somehow preferable to reducing a class to a selection of individuals (despite consistent pressure towards individualisation).

In his New Scientist essay ‘The Death of Individuality’, Alex Pentland offers the idea that individuals learn better in a social context. In what he calls ‘social physics’, a community actively feeds off the actions and implicit lessons offered by own members, to the benefit of each individual within the group as well as the group as a whole. Far beyond simple peer pressure, he argues that individual incentives are dwarfed by social networks – citing ‘patterns of communication’ as key to decision-making in small groups, as opposed to the characteristics of individuals.

At this point, if you’re a teacher, you’re probably right now thinking something along the lines of “Well, duh.” Teachers know the power of ensemble. It’s what we spend our weeks, months and years building with our respective classes. It’s why we continue to utilise group work as a pedagogic strategy, despite the rugged individualism of solo examinations. We understand that a class of kids is greater than the sum of its parts. The problem is that traditional assessment models view the individual as the greatest unit of rationality, and this can far too easily bleed into how learning is structured. If it is true that we learn through community, then why not follow that stream into the estuaries of shared assessment?

At times, education gets this right. Drama teachers understand the power of ensemble in assessment; whereby individuals are judged on their contribution to a shared outcome. The (currently trendy) concept of Project Based Learning invites students to develop individual skills through the shared creation of a product. The dialogic classroom, by definition, relies upon communication to even function.

No neat conclusions to this one but if it’s obvious that classes learn well (or best?) collectively, it seems equally obvious that we would do well to prioritise communal learning. Yes, there are arguments against collectivism in education, but I feel these arguments will always be rooted in negative assumptions of human motivation; that some people will coast, or that some will piggyback the work of others. In reality, classrooms can be far more collegiate. Evidence? See below for a selection of practices garnered from my department based on the questions outlined earlier:

  • Using student work for modelling
  • Using marking as an opportunity to highlight specific student’s positive outcomes
  • Creating class booklets of work to celebrate outcomes
  • Rewarding positive class behaviours as well as work
  • Developing tasks that rely upon individual participation for a desired outcome (all students valued equally)
  • Ditch the seating plan
  • Developing a culture of valued individuals

As ever, something to think about.


2 thoughts on “Us vs Them vs I: Another look at Differentiation

  1. As a DT teacher, I often used student work as a model for other classes. Examples could be used to illustrate particularly effective designs or show good use of making techniques. Another useful approach is for students to see and assess the work of other students. If the right sort of atmosphere is created – with a focus on positive feedback and how to improve – then the group can certainly be more powerful than the individual, with students learning from each other and amplifying what they have learned through discussion. Interesting ideas and thanks for posting.

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