“Climb That Tree” – Differentiating Differentiation

Twitter is a funny old thing, and I’ve no doubt that I’ve been guilty of tone crimes. I can be brusque, sarcastic, pedantic and disingenuous. But I have tried in recent months to curb these behaviours. None-the-less, I often find myself embroiled in conversations that can be irritating, confusing, and sometimes just weird. I suspect I am at least partially to blame – I can respond to things in a manner that may seem accusational or confrontational, I suppose. And I often fall foul of the 140 character limit and perhaps do not explain my thoughts and objections fully or clearly enough.

Thus, when I responded to a tweet from AdrianFGS (@Thembinkosi), about differentiation, I was not really expecting the conversation that ensued, or the nature of the labelling and insults that Adrian tweeted without directly tagging me. However, I am happy to concede that I may not have made quite clear what my objections to his initial tweet were, and I would like to try and do that here.

Adrian’s initial tweet was this:

With a link to this blog post.


I took issue with two things. Firstly, that in his blog post, Adrian gives must/should/could as an example of effective differentiation. Secondly, the picture shown in the tweet is terrible for a number of reasons. I shall deal with the picture first.

The cartoon is often presented with a quotation falsely attributed to Einstein. However, Adrian’s version doesn’t include it, so I shan’t spend too much time on that other than to say that  Einstein didn’t say it. Never-the-less, the message of the falsely attributed quotation clearly chimes with that of the cartoon. The quote reads: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. At first glance, this quotation and cartoon might seem a startlingly, obviously true reflection of our education system. The cartoon implies that asking every child to take the same test is unfair because children are individual and some children can’t do academic tests as well as other children can.

One of the problems that I have with this cartoon is the notion that children are so very different that they are analogous with being different species. That two children are so utterly different that an education system is unable to find suitable models of assessment that can identify knowledge and understanding shared by them. This is patently nonsensical.

For those children children with physical disabilities or severe learning difficulties, I can appreciate where the idea of a standard test becomes problematic. However, the cartoon is never presented to reflect such children. Rather, it is presented as a humorous example of why we need to differentiate assessment. The problem here is that in most classes across the country, children’s learning capabilities are really not so extremely different as to mean that they can never access the assessment criteria of a given test. The cartoon shows 5 out of 6 animals that could never climb that tree. Do we mean to suggest that perhaps 5 out of 6 children will never be able to access the assessment criteria of any given exam? How does this correlate with the high numbers of pupils who manage to attain a pass (by which I mean at least a G grade) at GCSE in a range of subjects? The evidence of exam results clearly shows that the vast majority of children indeed can access the assessment criteria of GCSE. Indeed, the grading of GCSE has differentiation built into it. And where children have severe physical or learning needs, special dispensation can be given, offering equity within the system. Whether this works in practice is up for debate, and I would certainly not say that access arrangements are currently successful. However, I think this falls beyond the scope of this blog post.

Alternatively, the cartoon could be seen as a humorous reflection of the need to differentiate instruction. Indeed, this seems to be what Adrian was talking about in his blog post. The problem here is that the example he gives as good practice – must/should/could (henceforth MSC) – doesn’t really address the problem of genuine differences in need in the classroom. Strangely, in our Twitter conversation, Adrian offered a scenario:

I asked Adrian how he would apply his MSC model of differentiation in this scenario. In fact, I asked a number of times. I’m still waiting for the answer.

The issue is that MSC types of differentiation are unlikely to help in such scenarios. How would it work?

All pupils MUST be able to say a key word from this topic in English

Most pupils SHOULD be able to explain the topic in English

Some pupils COULD write a thesis on the topic in English

I just can’t see how this approach would help anyone in that class. Of course, I would differentiate as best as I could, but I am by no means an expert in EAL pupils, and I have limited experience of working with them. The schools in which I have worked with EAL pupils adopted an immersion approach, with withdrawal sessions focused on language.

In his blog post, Adrian says that “it is essential that a lesson be planned to cater for the learning requirements of all”. In reality, how is this possible through a MSC style approach to differentiation? Is it really possible to plan a lesson that is going to cater for the individual needs of 30 children? How can we even know what those needs are actually going to be? In any given lesson the needs of individual children can be different from the previous lesson, the previous day, the previous week. What about the kid whose mother has just been diagnosed with cancer? What about the kid whose elder brother has been arrested? What about the kid whose been bullied and is harming themselves in secret? What about the kids for whom none of those things are happening?

The answer is, of course, that we can’t know those things. But we can know about their diagnosed learning needs, through their IEPs and so forth. So what happens then? We know that Billy has dyslexia and that Jenny has ADHD. On what grounds are we going to differentiate their learning on our plan? Do we assume that the autistic kid won’t get that George plays solitaire because he’s lonely? What assumptions is it acceptable for us to make about our pupils? Who are we to assume that any child would be working at the MUST level of our objectives?

This is a serious problem with this style of differentiation – that it inevitably leads to low expectations. I have frequently heard teachers say things about bottom sets such as, “Well, what do you expect from these kids?”.

In a previous post, I wrote this:

Another version of this question, or at least the underlying thinking that forms it, was when I worked in a school which was pretty good at playing the results game. At the time, I was Head of English and was discussing the content requirements of the GCSE Literature course with one of the Deputy Headteachers. His view was that we only really needed to bother teaching the Literature content to the top set; we would enter all the others for Literature but only so that their English Language grades would count towards the league tables. I tried to offer a counter opinion of this, but his retort stopped me in my tracks: “We only need them to get a C in English, not to be able to discuss the finer points of Of Mice and Men“.

This is an extreme form of the unintended consequences that comes from a MSC approach to differentiation. As it happens, that school insisted that lessons always have an MSC structure. A hinge-point question that would enable the teacher to divide the class into three groups, all doing a different thing. If a lesson were observed where children were doing the same task, it would be condemned. I got a GOOD in a lesson observation where I had a GCSE class marking sample exam answers and rewriting 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 the problem with this? Well, why shouldn’t the “D” group look at the B grade answer? Who am I to limit their experience of that?

[Of course, there is research to suggest that showing kids “Good answers” can do more harm than good in some instances. I think it is @lauramcinerney that I learnt this from.]

Back in the days of tiers in GCSE English, differentiation took the form of Foundation or Higher tier entries. But I know that some pupils were entered for the wrong tier. Some kids who could have attained a grade B or higher were entered for Foundation, limiting their potential attainment. This is something that I lament. At my current school, my HoD told me that she never entered pupils for Foundation tier. Her view was this: “If we can’t get a kid a D in GCSE English, we’ve done something wrong”.

In the conversation on Twitter, which was joined by @DiLeed offering sensible contributions,  I felt that the topic had become dominated by the issue of EAL, but no-one seemed willing or able to explain to me how differentiation of the MSC type could be used to effectively help EAL pupils. Some comments were made about personalised curriculums, but that is a different thing entirely from differentiation in the classroom, which is what I thought Adrian’s blog was about, and certainly what I take issue with. However, I will mention @otspage who engaged more openly in the discussion offering some interesting thoughts, questions and challenges about assessment for children with physical needs.

So, the problem that I have with differentiation as it manifests in most schools that I have experienced is actually about having low expectations of some pupils – either because of a diagnosed “learning need”, or because of teachers’ low opinions of the pupils.

Instead of assuming that some kids can’t climb that tree, we should be finding ways of helping them to get up there.