“Climb that tree” – Differentiating Differentiation

Back in 2016 I wrote a post called “Climb that Tree” – Differentiating Differentiation. I have now deleted that post as I decided I no longer wanted to give exposure to the tweeter mentioned in it. However, the thrust of the post is, I think, worth revisiting. So here follows a new version of the post with the same title. 

I’m sure you’ve all seen the cartoon which aims to lambast ‘Our Education System’ by showing a line of different animals being ordered to “climb that tree” as a standardised assessment tool.

Source unknown

The cartoon is often presented with a quotation falsely attributed to Einstein: “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. Adding the quotation from Einstein is intended to lend the message some authority, but the message carries enough truthiness to have people nodding sagely in agreement with it anyway. It’s a wonderfully Romantic notion to celebrate the individuality of each child and to present the school system as oppressively uniform; it’s an echo of Blake heard through the marshmallow comfort of ‘child-centred’ rhetoric. It seems wholesome and brain achingly obvious. But it is #EduLasagne: it tastes nice, it feels comforting, but it might be a load of horsemeat. 

In fact it isn’t #EduLasagne. It’s downright #EduBobbins.

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 entirely separate species with unrelated evolutionary paths. The idea is 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 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 GCSE grades 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. One example that has been used, and is often still promoted, is the use of must/should/could (henceforth MSC) strategies that expect teachers to differentiate learning objectives to three levels. 

I’ve often seen it suggested – expected – that teaching should take account of the learning needs of all. In principle I agree. 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 – 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 come from a MSC approach to differentiation. As it happens, that school insisted that lessons always have an MSC structure, employing a hinge-point question that would enable the teacher to divide the class into three groups, each 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. 

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.

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