Formative Assessment (Part 2) and A Case for Differentiated Instruction

I started this post as a case for differentiated instruction, but as I wrote it, I realised it was also very much about formative assessment. So, this is part two in my series on  formative assessment where I blog my journey through Dylan Wiliams’  book, Embedded Formative Assessment and share my and my school’s change journey.

Recently, quite a few blog posts and articles have been popping up in my feeds making a case against differentiated instruction. They’re powerful and convincing posts backed up with a lot of research evidence.

So, it’s perhaps arrogant of me to dare to disagree, given that I haven’t researched it myself. What I do have instead, is 20 years of teaching, observing, evaluating and reflecting on the effectiveness of my practice, and I would argue that dismissing the validity of that is also rather arrogant. (In fact, as an aside, has anyone else noticed how teacher’s are being listened to less and less? It’s as if our professional expertise aren’t worth anything if we don’t have a PhD!)

Mug from Moorland Pottery

Mug from Moorland Pottery

The argument against differentiation seems to be that there is no evidence of impact and that most teachers don’t do it because it is, in fact an impossible ask. In some instances it leads to lower outcomes because teachers set the bar too low, and don’t allow all students the opportunity to do the more challenging work. Therefore, we should back away from the whole idea as it doesn’t work, it’s so difficult it’s unachievable and it’s stressing teachers out.

Well, in spite of what the research apparently tells us,  I’m not turning my back on the practice.

As a primary school teacher, my classes are mixed ability.  My last Year 2 class had a student who entered as a non-reader and a non-writer. He only knew a few letters of the alphabet. I also had a group of English language learners in that class including some new arrivals. And then I had about 5 students who were extraordinarily capable. They were reading and spelling at a level more typical of 12 year olds, had impressive vocabularies and were enthusiastic writers.

If I gave the whole class the standard Year 2 work, my non-reader and writer would have floundered. He would have been constantly reminded that he was not good enough. He could perhaps retain some dignity if he copied from another student’s book, to at least appear to be working at the class level, but his experience would have been one of daily failure.

Similarly, if I insisted that my cluster of very talented students were to work at a Year 2 level, they would have coasted. They had already mastered the phonics and spelling curriculum that for most of my students required explicit teaching. They would have handed in bland, formulaic writing which achieved all the basic Year 2 standards on our marking rubric. They would have learned that they did not need to learn, that success comes easily. That challenge was only experienced by students with less ability than them.

I differentiate my lessons because if I didn’t, I couldn’t possibly be as effective a teacher. I’m  not prepared to rob my students of the best education I can offer just because its hard.

It is hard.

It’s also rewarding.

Differentiation does not have to mean planning different lessons for every student. For me, differentiation is about knowing where each of my students are at (see my earlier post on formative assessment) and setting explicit goals with them to move them forward in the context of each lesson.

Here is a simple example. When teaching persuasive writing I might assign the whole class the same topic, but the goal for each student is different.

My student  just learning to read and write would dictate his line of argument and three supporting statements either to me, to an aide, or as a voice memo on the iPad. He would then hear it back, and slowly record it in writing. His goal at the start of the year was to write one complete simple sentence on the topic using a capital letter and a full-stop. As the year progressed, we increased the number of sentences he was to write, and added other features such as conjunctions. The goals were explicit and we recorded his progress on a little chart. We kept copies of his work so he could look back and compare his later performance to where he was at the beginning of the year. He did not require a separate lesson, and supporting him in this way was not difficult. All it required was a knowledge of where he was at, and then working out his next step. He had a sense of pride and achievement, and was able to participate fully in the class program, but at a level that was appropriate and would move his learning forward.

My cluster of high achievers did not miss out. We would conference together and set goals for their writing as well. They were challenged to use different sentence structures and to vary the way they opened their sentences. They had to elaborate more and were challenged to use metaphors and analogy in their writing. Again, they were working on the same task, but they had specific goals, negotiated with them,  to move them forward.

Goals weren’t only for the students at the higher and lower ends of my class. All my students were working towards their own goals which were determined through clear, specific feedback and negotiation.

I did not have to work hard to plan different learning experiences for each of my students to differentiate a lesson. What I did have to do was provide effective feedback, and co-create learning goals which would move students forward. It was effective teaching, my students not only progressed well in writing. They also became empowered learners. They understood their goals and took responsibility for tracking and working towards them. My students not were not only learning how to write, they were learning how to learn.