Differentiation and Sunday dinner.

Why differentiation isn’t all bad

Differentiation and roast dinner.

Should you be so bold as to mention the word “differentiation” in conversation with educators you are likely to feel as if you are in a wind tunnel, such is the ferocity of argument around and against both the word and its associated practice.

For many years, differentiation was a given. Colleagues were instructed to deliberately differentiate “three ways” with the inevitable incorrect assumed correlation between ever greater numbers of differentiated tasks and better teaching. Colleagues soon found themselves having to prepare not one route through a lesson but three or more. Worksheets abounded as did differentiated learning objectives, differentiated success criteria and ever more layers of classroom organisation until such point as the teacher was having to spend more time preparing the differentiated tasks than thinking about the quality of instruction.

We are all also well versed in the glass ceilings placed upon children by the use of pre determined groupings and associated pre determined differentiated routes through a lesson. The forking of the lesson highways with these variety of paths however only served to land our learners at different destinations and in the words of Bart Simpson, “So let me get this straight, you want me to go slower in order to catch up? – cuckoo!”  

Ultimately we all want children to land on broadly the same patch of educational grass rather than in different educational fields when we teach. Differentiation in its old format was somehow meant to assist children in getting there, as is now the “teach to the top and scaffold down” approach.

I have no problem with either though really and I’ll tell you why. It’s about roast dinner and young children.

My three children are close together in age, in fact I had three under five at one point. As a result, mealtimes were often messy, a little chaotic and involved a whole lot of cloths and baby wipes.

But they also contained a lot of differentiation. And a lot of scaffolding.

Every Sunday we have a traditional roast dinner, either at my parents’ or one I have prepared.

On Sundays, we’d sit down to dinner and I had to differentiate the dinner.

For my youngest who was yet to even master a spoon and who couldn’t yet really eat a wide range of solid food, and for whom the salty gravy would’ve been developmentally inappropriate, just the vegetables were often pureed and then he’d be given a bit of parsnip or carrot to chew on for a little bit of hand to mouth practice and given a spoon to hold to play with and get used to. Sometimes, he didn’t even eat anything at all as he’d be full up on milk or had just woken up from a nap. On these occasions he’d usually crawl around the dining room, practising pulling himself up on the legs of his high chair or be sat on someone’s knee, chatting and having various things pointed out.

The middle one would have had her dinner cut up for her into manageable pieces and would then also be helped to hold her spoon and fork correctly (she wasn’t able to use a knife at this point). She’d get covered in dinner and need regular reminders about how to hold the fork but apart from the odd dropped bit of cutlery and the formation of a “gravy and Yorkshire pudding beard” most weeks, she was relatively successful.

The eldest one would have a knife and fork and have a good go at cutting and feeding herself with only a little bit of help needed here and there.

They were all having the same dinner but were at different stages of proficiency so needed both different levels of scaffolding and different “tasks”.

It would have been madness to just “feed to the top” and expect all three of them to get the precise nutrition they needed without me having prepared their meals in different ways. Now if you’re a “baby led weaning” purist I know that this is where my explanation falls down a little but my mum’s dining room carpet wasn’t quite ready for the full on BLW experience on a Sunday.

In many primary classrooms, children are often taught in mixed age classes. In fact, I have never taught in a school in 24 years where there weren’t mixed age classes. Small schools and fluctuating pupil numbers mean that a huge swathe of primary schools teach children in classes with more than one year group, and in some cases, more than one key stage. This is not an exception. This is not just a handful of schools. This is hundreds and thousands of schools up and down the country. This is a huge proportion of our primary population.

Teach to the top and scaffold down is something I would always advocate. Differentiation with its pre determined glass ceilings, limits and associated Rosenthal effect is something I would avoid at all costs in most cases. But then there is common sense and actual lived experience of a mixed age class.

Let’s take the usual spread of attainment you may get in a single year group. We have all taught year groups where the spread of attainment is huge. I remember one Y6 cohort within my year5/6 class where the spread was from P Levels to a child who was working at GCSE level. And that’s just one of the year groups  in the class. Broaden that out even further to include another year group or maybe two or three and suddenly you’re faced with the educational equivalent of my Sunday dinner teatime.

When faced with a class who vary not only in attainment but also in age and stage it is therefore truly unhelpful to say that differentiation is wrong or bad. The prior knowledge, skill and understanding of these children is going to be wildly different. In a class where you have the age spread of R-2 (and this is not uncommon), saying “teach to the top and scaffold down” is at best unhelpful and makes the teacher feel somehow ineffective if they can’t make it work and at worst actually unhelpful in terms of children’s understanding and progress as they struggle to make sense of work pitched way too high for their age and stage.

Now this is not call to then differentiate teaching by age. That is categorically not the point I am making. Differentiation is however a very necessary tool in the teaching toolbox. To anyone who would claim it is not, I would say go and teach in a R-2 classroom for a morning or teach Literacy to a mixed age Y 3-6 class and don’t differentiate any aspect of it.

I have seen awful mixed age practice before where a line has been drawn down the board and Y1 are only allowed to answer the Y1 questions on one side and Y2 the questions on the other. I would never advocate or endorse this kind of practice but we do need to integrate differentiation in our mixed age classes on occasions if we are to build on children’s existing skills and prior knowledge. It is madness to say it can all be sorted with scaffolding too. If you have children who have yet to even master correct letter formation or even correct pencil grip in a class with children who are happily writing in full sentences, then all the scaffolding in the world isn’t going to help you. Neither is it appropriate for those children working earlier on in their educational journey to be expected to run to keep up rather than being taken on the same sort of pitched curriculum journey they would have received had they been in a single straight year group.

What differentiation really is, especially in mixed age classes, is the Sunday dinner approach. The single meal is prepared but the way it is served and accessed is different. It has to be. The age and stage of the three diners is very different and all but my eldest would have failed to eat “successfully” had they not been served the dinner in a slightly different way either cut up or pureed or with some elements just left out, with different resources (cutlery) and the with different levels of support from me as I helped them to use their spoon or cut up their meat or spoonfed them parts of the meal myself whilst they just got to grips with holding a parsnip.

Saying differentiation is bad is to discount the lived experience of a large swathe of the sector, those who are teaching classes containing not just a spread of attainment but in some cases up to 3 or 4 actual years of being alive. There are of course occasions when all the class can access the learning at the same or similar stages but in many cases it is simply not possible or appropriate. You are simply not going to share the same text with an Autumn Term Y3 child as your Autumn Term Y6 child in the same mixed age class nor are you going to be having that same Y3 child listening to whole class direct instruction of fractions pitched to the highest attaining learner in Y6.

We need therefore to reclaim differentiation, especially within the context of mixed age classes as a real and useful tool for meeting the needs of a broad range of ages in our specific contexts.

Differentiation is not bad when used judiciously and appropriately alongside a deep understanding of the knowledge, skills, development and understanding of the pupils in a class. Matching the learning experiences to this understanding is the equivalent of the Sunday dinner mealtime for my three. We are all trying to get to the stage where all our pupils can access their “Sunday dinner” with little or no help but we cannot pretend that they will get there just with scaffolding and high expectations alone.

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