Doing Away With Differentiation

Many of us have wondered how exactly we square the fact that children can get cleverer with the need for differentiation. If children really can get cleverer, which they can (hopefully, I will demonstrate this below), does differentiation really help, does it hold students back, does the answer lie in how we do the differentiating?

Well, I’m going to go all out and suggest that we do away with almost all of our differentiation entirely. There are exceptions where genuine differentiation may be required, like when a dyslexic student might use a laptop, for example. And sometimes we need to do things differently for students with Downs Syndrome, for example, or other very severe difficulties with learning. But the vast majority of differentiation is a waste of time.

We seem to misguidedly treat the situation as if differences exist between how students learn. We provide different tasks as if there are differences in how people learn and therefore we should adapt our teaching accordingly. The learning styles debacle was a horrible example of this wrong-headed approach.

It simply isn’t true that we are all that different at the most fundamental level. We aren’t. We are a species who, fundamentally, all learn exactly the same way. We are all human. We all have a brain. Neurons fire.

There is no disputing the fact that if we look at prior attainment, some students in the class have done better than others. Maybe they have been doing so for a long time. It can look like an objective ‘truth’ that one student is ‘cleverer’ than another. But like so much of our instinct, this can be deceiving and the truth is much more complex.

To explore this further, I’d like to try to answer this question: why do some children underachieve in the first place?

There are so many reasons. There are social reasons, there are medical reasons, family reasons. Sometimes teachers don’t teach well enough. That’s a particularly uncomfortable reason but it’s true all the same.

In his excellent blog, David Didau points out that medical conditions like glue ear can affect children’s early learning experiences. Glue ear is not a learning difficulty in itself but it may appear like one if we rush to the wrong conclusions. It matters because rushing to the wrong conclusions can condemn a child to the bottom set and that in itself may ensure they never leave it.

And there are other things than can affect a child’s early education: developmental delay; poor executive function, which can make concentrating and paying attention very hard, and any number of other problems.

Firstly, these problems may resolve as the child grows so we ought not assume they will be there forever. Secondly, even where problems persist, the way that any one human being learns is essentially the same way as every other human being. We have existing knowledge and we attach new knowledge to what we know already, forming ever greater and more complex schemas as we go. This is what leads to critical thinking and creativity. See Daniel Willingham talk about the importance of knowledge here.

At least, we will all learn this way if we’re allowed to, if we’re ever exposed to the greater complexity we need for deeper learning. Not all of our so-called ‘weaker’ students ever get this chance. Our labelling misleads us into thinking less of people. We may jump to conclusions based on their social class and the way they talk. We use terms like, ‘less able.’ But they are just as capable, if we let them, of developing great knowledge and insight. We just have to teach it to them.

In other words, the problem is not a ‘lack of intelligence,’ as such.

There are several theories of intelligence but a popular one recognises two types of intelligence: fluid intelligence (the ability to be aware, think, reason) and crystallised intelligence, which, if the theory is correct, depends on what we know and can access from long-term memory. Part of being intelligent then, is knowing stuff. And some students may not yet know ‘enough’ whatever we determine ‘enough’ to be. But that doesn’t imply they can’t learn, if we teach them.

The gap is a knowledge gap. We must fill it.

How do we do this?

Let’s look at what not to do first:

We can’t do this through traditional differentiation. ‘All/most/some’ or ‘must/should/could’ are, in my opinion, two of the worst catchphrases ever to make it into the world of education. They should be immediately banned for the heinous crime of completely misunderstanding the problem we’re all trying to address. They cause teachers to waste time, and it is a waste of time, coming up with different tasks for students, or different levels of task, which simply serve to ensure the students we are most worried about get the least opportunity to grow.

Differentiated questioning is just as bad. It places a cap on what students will be able to do before they’ve even tried. Breaking up a complex question into parts so that we build up understanding slowly is a good thing, and works for all students, but assuming certain children can’t handle the tough end of the question spectrum is fundamentally flawed.

And, finally, if we’re going to hand out sentence starters, we need to ensure students intentionally practice with them (more on deliberate practice below) until they are internalised and can be used creatively and independently. Having to provide the same starters over and over again because the tool has not been internalised by students is proof it is not working.

What does work:

Our ‘struggling’ students, the vast majority of them, if not all, need more opportunities to learn and remember knowledge. They don’t need less, or simpler knowledge. That’s an important distinction. They need more high quality, challenging knowledge and they need it even more than the other students.

They can handle it too. Students who have been held back for years relish the opportunity to bask in someone finally believing in them and offering them deeper, more interesting material to play with. Things that are tough to wrestle with are always interesting, especially if we add in the passion of a great teacher.

The best way to start building knowledge is through direct instruction. That doesn’t mean talking at children and telling them what to think. If you’re still not sure about the value of DI and currently favour discovery learning, please read this by Barak Rosenshine. In just 9 pages, he might well change your life.

Our students also need more practice. Deliberate practice is key to building automaticity and enabling students to be more creative with the ideas they learn about. (Anders Ericsson wrote a great book about this.) Students simply don’t get enough of this as we race through the curriculum at break-neck speed.

For example, a knowledge of vocabulary and sentence structures, which are known so intimately that they spring into consciousness with little effort, is what allows great writers to create wonderful expressions and brand new meanings. Our students deserve access to this world and we can give them that through carefully building knowledge and generating practice (For more on how to help students with writing, Judith Hochman talks about ‘The Writing Revolution’ here.)

What about the students who are achieving? Is this going to be too easy?

The good news is that everyone, whether they are ‘underachieving’ or not, benefits from lots of knowledge and lots of practice explaining and exploring it. Overlearning is a term that was coined a long time ago but is still relevant today. If we want our students, all of them, to build sophisticated schema, we need to give them the opportunity to practice, to return to things, to seek out the detail and make deep connections.

And all students need teachers to be aware of cognitive load. Learning in the first instance should be pretty effortless. We want students to have enough desirable difficulty to ensure recall happens during retrieval practice, but want to stop at the point that working memory may become overwhelmed. It should be hard enough but not too hard. Judgments like that are not easy to make but it does get easier with experience.

In fact, what we really need is to think of those students who appear ‘weaker’ as the barometer for whether our teaching as a whole is working effectively. If they’re not learning then nobody in the class is learning as well as they could. That’s the mantra I live by and it serves me pretty well.

I’ll finish with a very brief anecdote: when I was a child, I never had stabilisers when I was learning to ride a bike. My dad thought I could do fine without them and he was right. I didn’t fail to learn. I learned just fine. I had knowledge (my dad gave me lots of tips) and I had the opportunity to practice. That is really all it takes.


Here’s a summary of things we need to give to all our students, instead of differentiating:


  • Direct instruction – tell them something. You’re the expert so impart knowledge (this is not spoon-feeding. I’ll be writing a blog on the difference between these two things in the near future.) Your students can only learn once they have some knowledge. Discovery learning invites students to needlessly reinvent the wheel over and over again and, when they fail to do so, we have to give them the ‘right answers’ anyway, after the fact. Pointless.


  • Spaced practice and interleaving – my blog, here, mentions these but for more, see the work of Robert Bjork.


  • Alternate between abstract concepts and concrete examples of those concepts to build secure knowledge and understanding


  • Retrieval practice – my blog, here, explains the difference between retrieval and recapping or revisiting. It is very specific and we need to get it right.


  • Overlearning – repeat things. Even the most able students will benefit from the new insights they gain from repeated exposure to the same knowledge and more practice at exploring and explaining it


  • Don’t dumb down material or tasks but do keep an eye on cognitive load so that students’ working memories aren’t overwhelmed.


  • Metacognition– this is tough for novices but ‘thinking about thinking’ (exploring the steps involved in planning/approaching complex tasks etc), can help students get better faster.


  • Use modelling, worked examples and exemplar answers to scaffold student’s thinking.  Thinking diagrams (concept drawings, mind-maps, Venn diagrams and flow charts etc) are great for helping students capture and organise their thoughts and can be used in across all subjects




Zoe Helman


15th October 2018


5 thoughts on “Doing Away With Differentiation

  1. I agree completely about differentiation, though you tend to over-emphasise knowledge and don’t really deal with how knowledge becomes understanding (and gloss over metacognition as a result). But staying with your main point that differentiation is mostly unnecessary because all students’ intelligence can rise, I hope you agree that differentiating by prior testing (i.e. setting and streaming) is also mistaken. If it’s a mistake to make lower demands on some students within a class, it’s a mistake to make lower demands on some students within a school.


    1. Thank you for your comments and yes, I agree about setting and streaming. Perhaps the link between knowledge and understanding could habe been more explicit bit it is in thete implicitly. I specifically didn’t cover metacognition here because it would need a whole blog in itself. I am aware of the EEF work showing that metacognition improves learning but thete are potentially complex issues with when and how metacognition is introduced within a learning sequence. Novice learners may not benefit from a focus on metacognition because it may detract from whatever it is they are actually meant to be learning.(see Kirschner). As I said, it’s a complex thing to unpick. In any blog, editorial choices have to be made.


  2. Incredibly informative – thank you. I assume you do not agree with sets? I have agonised over whether to set or not. I feel that setting lets you work at a pace more appropriate, but reading your blog had left me wondering again!


    1. Thanks for commenting. You’re right. I don’t agree with setting. If it makes you feel any better, setting by ability us a very British oddity. Most European countries don’t do it. It shows there is another way.


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