Planning differentiation for the classroom

Experiment: Critique something assumed to be amazing.

I’ve always been a bit resistant to the trend toward planning differentiation. I attributed my own skepticism to the fact that the push for planning differentiation came from administrators, especially those peddling the Charlotte Danielson teacher evaluation (or some offshoot), which I hate with every fiber of my being and may have to include in the blog someday. But, I’ve come to realize that my reservations come from the way that planning differentiation is assumed to be positive, necessary, and always possible. This unskeptical acceptance allows teachers and administrators to ignore what is lost in the classroom when differentiation becomes a guiding principle of planning. We also tend to ignore the cost of implementing differentiation, probably because it is invisible work.

Differentiation is defined as by the UK’s Training and Development Agency for Schools as “the process by which differences between learners are accommodated so that all students in a group have the best possible chance of learning”(Using differentiation in mixed-ability classes, 2013). Right away, this is a value ridden statement, as if students were not naturally disposed to learning, that teachers have not normally been giving them a chance to do it, and that differentiation is able to give them the best chance. I think the argument is bigger and that we are still waiting for the evidence on this one.

Here are my questions:

  1. Is differentiation actually possible for a teacher to plan?
  2. Is planning differentiation useful?
  3. What is the subtext of planned differentiation as a goal?
  4. Is there another way? (Not in this post though, its too long!)

Is it possible to plan differentiation? Can a teacher really do it? Is it possible for a teacher to see all of the potential outcomes for every child in the class? Is it possible for students to demonstrate everything they need so that a teacher can plan correctly? Can the teacher produce enough options, enough individual work, and gauge the progress on that work? And can they keep the class together while doing that? The discussion of differentiation describes three types: by task, by support, and by outcome. It is suggested that differentiation by outcome is not best practice, but is still called differentiation (Using differentiation in mixed-ability classes, 2013). I would argue that differentiation by support and outcome are the most possible but are already embedded within the work of teachers should not necessarily be planned for. We really don’t need to belabor the expectation that teachers give support where needed and recognize how students will create different work even in response to the same instruction. Unfortunately, those two are seen as less than differentiation by task, which might be the impossible one, and perhaps the useless one of the three.

Is it useful? Should we really plan to use all three as much as possible? The underlying assumptions that differentiation (especially by task) are that students grow linearly and evenly, that any single gain must lead to another gain in the same realm, that we are able to quantify all the particular ways we want students to learn, and that no steps can be skipped. Only if all of those are true is planned differentiation absolutely necessary. I think it is possible that many of those are false, that students grow unevenly and unexpectedly, skipping steps and coming back around again. Perhaps even planning to differentiate by support should be kept to a minimum. A lower achieving student may continue to rely on a teacher if they always get more support. By naming the students that will need more support, teachers  are already making a judgement about the quality of work that student will produce (yes, I had to do this!). The teacher is creating a discriminatory evaluation while planning, highlighting the names of special education students  on their rosters when school or teacher evaluation time comes. This is done based on a biased assumption about what each child needs, as if their growth was predictable. The judgement will inevitably be normative. Teachers are forced to assume that there is a right way for each child to develop and that all children are similar enough to make a judgement based on past interactions with students — if students are all totally dissimilar and unique, then planning for differentiation is actually impossible. Which probably means that planning differentiation isn’t that useful as a whole.

What is the subtext of stating differentiation as the ultimate way to give each child a chance?  The most obvious is the underlying message of individualism, as if the purpose of school is each single child. If the only hope we have for students is individual growth, then I would argue that we need to go back to a system of individual tutors and that the classroom is not the best place for planned differentiation (especially by task and by support). Schools dedicated to planned differentiation ignore the universal goals of education, universal concepts that underlie material and the power of mixed ability grouping, which has a rather large body of supporting evidence!

It is easy to assume that being critical of planned differentiation makes me an education heretic. I’ve just run out of space before I could pitch another way to think about it. It looks like this may become another multiple post series, next time I’ll look at some other ways to think about differentiation. And trust. I think that’s the big message.

Using differentiation in mixed-ability classes. (2013). TES New Teachers. Retrieved from


One thought on “Planning differentiation for the classroom

  1. Pingback: Differentiation – my version | winchip

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