In 2016 I wrote a post titled"Climb that tree" - Differentiation Differentiation🇧🇷 I've now deleted this post because I've decided I don't want to further shame the tweeter mentioned in it. However, I think it's worth looking again at the central idea of the post. So here follows a new version of the post with the same title.
I'm sure you've all seen the cartoon that purports to criticize "our education system", showing lots of different animals being told to "climb this tree" as a standardized assessment tool.
The cartoon is often accompanied by a quote.wrongly attributed to Einstein: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking it's stupid. At first glance, this quote and cartoon may seem like a startling and obviously faithful reflection of our education system. The cartoon suggests that asking all children to take the same test is unfair because children are individuals and some children are not as good at academic tests as other children. The addition of the Einstein quote is intended to give the message some authority, but the message has enough veracity that people still nod wisely. It's a wonderfully romantic notion of celebrating each child's individuality and portraying the school system as oppressively uniform; is an echo of Blake, heard through the marshmallow comfort of "child-centered" rhetoric. He looks healthy and the brain is painfully obvious. But it's #EduLasagne: it tastes good, it's comforting, but it could be a lot of horse meat.
Btw it's not an #EduLasagna. It is absolutely #EduBobbins.
One of the problems I have with this cartoon is the idea that children are so different that they are entirely separate species with unrelated evolutionary paths. The idea is that two children are so completely different that an education system cannot find adequate assessment models that can identify the knowledge and understanding they share. This is obviously nonsense.
For children with physical disabilities or severe learning difficulties, I can see where the idea of a standardized test becomes problematic. However, the cartoon is never presented to reflect these children. Rather, it is presented as a humorous example of why we need to differentiate assessment. The problem here is that inthe majorityIn fact, in classes across the country, children's learning abilities do not vary so much that they never meet the scoring criteria for a given test. The cartoon shows 5 out of 6 animals that could do thisNeverclimb that tree. Let's say maybe 5 out of 6 kidsNeveraccess the scoring criteria for a specific exam? How does this relate to the large number of students obtaining GCSE qualifications in various subjects? Evidence from test scores clearly shows that the vast majority of children do, in fact,You mayAccess to GCSE assessment criteria. Indeed, the GCSE qualification has built-in differentiation. And when children have severe physical or learning needs, a special exemption can be granted, ensuring equity within the system. Whether this works in practice is up for debate and I certainly wouldn't say that access regimes are currently successful. However, I think it's beyond the scope of this blog post.
Alternatively, the cartoon can be seen as a humorous reflection on the need for differentiation.Instruction🇧🇷 An example that has been used, and is often still encouraged, is the use of should/should/could be (henceforth MSC) strategies, which require teachers to differentiate learning objectives at three levels.
I have often seen it suggested, expected, that teaching take into account everyone's learning needs. Basically I agree. How is this actually possible through an MSC-style approach to differentiation? Is it really possible to design a lesson that meets the individual needs of 30 children? How can we know what those needs really are? In each lesson, each child's needs may differ from the previous lesson, day, or week. What about the child whose mother just got sick with cancer? What about the boy whose older brother was arrested? What about the kid who was bullied and secretly hurt? What about kids who don't have any of these things happening to them?
The answer, of course, is that we cannot know these things. But we can learn about your diagnosed learning needs, through your IEPs, etc. What happens then? We know that Billy has dyslexia and that Jenny has ADHD. On what basis are we going to differentiate their learning in our plan? Suppose the autistic child does not understand that George is playing solitaire because he is alone. What assumptions can we make about our students? Who are we to assume that every child would work at the MUST-HAVE level of our goals?
There is a serious problem with this type of differentiation: it inevitably leads to low expectations. I've often heard teachers say things about the early grades, like, "Well, what do you want these kids to do?"
on aprevious post,I wrote this:
Another version of this issue, or at least the underlying thinking that forms it, was when I worked at a school that was very good at playing the results game. At the time I was the Head of the English Department and I discussed the content requirements of the GCSE Literature course with one of the Deputy Heads. His opinion was that we really only needed to worry about teaching the content of the literature to the upper groups; We would put everyone else in literature, but only so their English grades would count towards the leaderboards. I tried to argue the contrary, but his response stopped me: "We just need them to get a C in English, not so we can discuss the complexities of Of Mice and Men."
This is an extreme form of the unintended consequences that result from an MSC differentiation approach. Coincidentally, this school insisted that classes always have an MSC structure, using an articulation issue that allowed the teacher to divide the class into three groups, each doing something different. If a class was observed in which children did the same task, it was condemned. I got a GUT on a classroom observation where I had a GCSE course that marked sample exam answers and paraphrased them. One group looked at a D-grade answer, one group a C-grade answer, and the other group a B-grade answer. What's wrong with that? Well, why shouldn't group "D" look at class B's answer? Who am I to qualify your experience with this?
[Of course, there is research to suggest that, in some cases, showing children “good answers” may do more harm than good. I think I learned that from @lauramcinerney.]
At the time of GCSE English levels, distinction took the form of entries at Basic or higher level. But Isabrethat some students were enrolled in the wrong grade. Some children who may have achieved a grade of B or higher entered the Foundation, limiting their potential achievements. I regret that.
In fact, the problem I have with differentiation, as it has manifested itself in most of the schools I've tried, is that I have low expectations of some students, either because of a diagnosed "need to learn" or because of a low opinion of the teacher about the student.
Instead of assuming that some kids can't climb that tree, let's find ways to help them get there.