Ilektra Spandagou

Differentiation is in our schools to stay. What is it? And why are most criticisms of it just plain wrong?

The use of a teaching practice known as ‘differentiation’ has become more common over time as educators have sought to respond to increases in the diversity of students enrolling in their local school. The term is now used widely by Australian teachers and school leaders, as well as policy makers.

For example, according to the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, Australian teachers are expected to “Differentiate teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities”. They are also expected to implement “Quality Differentiated Teaching Practice to meet the diversity of learners within their classroom”, as part of the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability.

Being able to claim and demonstrate high-quality differentiation in the classroom now informs teacher promotion and school improvement review processes. It is also one way schools can meet their obligations under the Disability Standards for Education, as differentiation is a means through which teachers make reasonable adjustments to curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and the learning environment.

Given the emphasis in Australian legislation, policy and practice, it is important that when we refer to differentiation, we are all talking about the same thing. However, if you were to ask 10 teachers what differentiation means and how they implement it in their classrooms, you could receive 10 different responses.

As education researchers with expertise in inclusive education, we were interested in the spread of differentiation and what it means to teachers and researchers. We are also curious as to the basis for some especially loud criticisms of it.

Criticisms based on inconsistencies and misconceptions

There are a range of criticisms of differentiation including that it:

  • Requires teachers to provide every student with individualised lessons
  • Increases teachers’ workloads
  • Makes teachers’ work complicated
  • Waters down the curriculum
  • Lowers expectations of students and their exposure to the academic curriculum
  • Is too difficult to implement in mainstream classrooms
  • Is inconsistent with evidence-based approaches such as Response to Intervention
  • Lacks evidence of effectiveness.

We began this review because we knew that several of these criticisms are just plain wrong. For example, the goal of differentiation is to stretch students beyond what they can already do but not so much that they experience frustration or failure. It is about “teaching up”, not “watering down” the curriculum, where teachers raise expectations for all students and provide appropriate scaffolds to help students to experience success.

It is also not about “‘individualised instruction’”; rather, it offers “multiple avenues to learning” through proactive design. In fact, its emphasis on proactive planning aims to reduce teacher workload, not add to it. By building in accessibility and flexibility, it has the potential to save teachers time in the long run by teaching more efficiently and effectively from the outset, preventing the need to spend additional time replanning and reteaching the curriculum.

Some of these criticisms stem from a lack of definitional clarity. This problem was highlighted in Australian research as long ago as 2014, and has been recently confirmed by two reviews from the United States, published in 2019 and 2020.

A consistent and clear understanding of what is meant by differentiation is therefore vital in order to examine the validity of these criticisms and consider whether they correctly construe the motivation for its use.

To examine these issues in more depth, we undertook a comprehensive scoping review to synthesise what can be known from existing studies. We found that the research literature on differentiation contains a range of definitional inconsistencies and misconceptions about how differentiation is conceptualised and implemented.

This is a huge problem. How can we talk about, implement or indeed criticise differentiation in our schools if we are talking about and doing different things?

So let’s start with a definition

It is essential for teachers and researchers to work from a common understanding of differentiation and so as part of our research we first provided a clear definition. To construct our definition we drew on the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson, an American educator, author and speaker who is well known for her work with differentiated instruction over the last two decades.

This is what we, and others in inclusive education, mean when we use the term. It is:

the use of proactive planning and inclusive practices to create accessible learning experiences to meet the needs of all learners in heterogeneous classrooms, using flexible within-class grouping, as opposed to fixed ability grouping, year-level streaming or withdrawal to separate programs.

For further clarification, we use the term flexible grouping to refer to varied use of whole class and individual learning, alongside heterogeneous and homogeneous small group learning according to interest, learning profile, and readiness.

Our research

We conducted our scoping review of all peer-reviewed research literature published between 1999, when Carol Tomlinson published her influential book, The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners, and 2019, the year we concluded our search. Searches of seven research databases netted 1,235 records, to which we added another six identified through hand-searching.

Our definition was broad and theoretically derived and hinged on practices enacted to meet the needs of all learners in heterogeneous classrooms. We therefore excluded studies that incorporated practices inconsistent with this definition such as ability grouping, year-level streaming or studies in which there was withdrawal of students to separate programs. We also excluded studies informed by misguided practices such as differentiating for learning styles or intelligence strengths, or by ability grouping and segregation as there is either no evidence to support their use or because there is clear evidence against their use.

Multiple screening stages (for those interested in the details of our research process, particularly when it comes to what we excluded and why, please go to our full paper) resulted in a final sample of 34 journal articles. Our review of these 34 articles was guided by two research questions, both of which were exploratory, rather than explanatory:

  1. Are there any discernible patterns in peer-reviewed empirical research conducted on differentiation in school settings between 1999 and 2019 with regard to aim, location, school phase, participant types and methods used?
  2. What are the principal research foci of these studies, how do they conceptualise and research differentiation, and how might research on differentiation be improved?

Findings

Our findings on the research evidence on differentiation were variously pleasing, surprising and of great concern to us. We found that while some teachers can find differentiation a challenge to implement or to implement well, echoing the concerns of some critics, this was not ubiquitous. Indeed we found that the range and depth of teachers’ use of differentiated teaching practices was enhanced by strong and committed leadership. It was also supported by quality professional learning, which contributed to staff buy-in and a school-wide culture of teacher collaboration, as well as supporting the quality and frequency of teacher implementation of differentiation.

We also found great diffusion in how differentiation was conceptualised making it difficult to produce clear findings about whether differentiation works. Despite this, the reviewed studies that examined the impact of differentiation consistent with our definition generally indicated that it typically produced improvements in student learning when compared to regular practice, with some suggestion that this may be even greater in more disadvantaged schools. There was little evidence to support criticisms that differentiation waters down the curriculum or lowers expectations and no studies advocating for the creation of individual lesson plans for individual students. Given the number of studies and participants that are represented in our review, this effectively dispels these criticisms as myth.

The diversity of focus and methodological approaches across the 34 studies, however, prevents a structured comparison of findings and therefore weakens the evidential basis to make stronger claims of either differentiation’s effectiveness or indeed its ineffectiveness. In particular, strong claims were hampered by the fact that:

  • Half the 34 studies were conducted in the United States and most in the elementary (primary) school phase with very few studies focusing on secondary schools.
  • Survey and case study designs were dominant, as was research of influences on teacher practice.
  • Only a small group of studies focused on differentiation’s impact on student outcomes and these typically only examined specific elements of differentiation or in specific academic domains, such as science or reading.
  • The majority of studies were undermined by methodological weaknesses—such as a tendency to rely on convenience samples and to use weak forms of survey methodology, as well as to attempt to determine the impact of differentiation using only student achievement scores—validating some concerns about the state of the research on differentiation.
  • Poor design weakened the strength of the overall findings because of the incommensurability between the measures used by participants from different schools and districts, and the incommensurability of practices across cases.
  • Although there were some studies that investigated the impact of differentiation using rigorous procedures, the majority of research was compromised by the use of small sample sizes and researcher-developed instruments with no clear theoretical or empirical foundation.
  • A lack of transparency due to poor reporting and very little cross-referencing between studies led to the majority ‘remaking the wheel’ rather than working together to create a coherent evidence-base.

Recommendations

Our research suggests that research on differentiation can and should improve, if the understanding of the practice is itself to improve.

Far too many studies are conducted without a coherent and theoretically informed definition to guide the development of instruments or to provide an appropriate lens through which to analyse the data collected. Having now read a vast number of articles, each claiming to be about differentiation, we observe that new research on this topic must build from and improve on previous studies. This is important to avoid researchers approaching the topic with the assumption that there is common agreement as to what differentiation is, or proposing their own new definition.

To achieve this, we believe future research on differentiation could:

  • clearly define differentiation as a range of evidence-based practices that teachers can use to meet the needs of all learners in heterogeneous classrooms
  • investigate the planning and enactment of these practices in both primary and secondary general education settings
  • use rigorous mixed-method research designs capable of assessing the adequacy of those practices for meeting the full range of individual learning needs, whilst determining the effect on students’ engagement, educational experiences, and academic outcomes; and
  • monitor implementation fidelity and the impact on teachers’ work.

We see our paper and our considered definition of differentiation grounded in prior research as a starting point to build useful evidence on differentiation for schools and teachers in Australia. If we are to use differentiation to meet the needs of students with and without disabilities in our schools, teachers need to be on the same page and confident in the evidence behind the practices they are using.

For those who want more, here is our full paper: A scoping review of 20 years of research on differentiation: investigating conceptualisation, characteristics, and methods used

Professor Linda Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her research investigates the role of education policy and schooling practices in the development of disruptive student behaviour and the improvement of responses to children with language, learning and behavioural difficulties.

Dr Kate de Bruin is a senior lecturer in inclusion and disability in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. She has taught in secondary school and higher education for two decades. Her research focuses on inclusive education in policy and practice, examining system, school and classroom practices that are supported by evidence, and that promote quality and equity for all students, with specific attention to students with a disability.

Dr Carly Lassig is a Lecturer in The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at QUT with a passion for social justice, equity and inclusion. Her research and teaching interests include: inclusive education, disability, differentiation, Universal Design for Learning, gifted education, and creativity. Carly’s PhD, “Perceiving and pursuing novelty: A grounded theory of adolescent creativity” investigated young people’s experiences of creativity within and beyond the school environment. Carly’s background is as a primary and middle years teacher, having taught nationally and internationally.

Dr Ilektra Spandagou is an Associate Professor of Inclusive Education at The University of Sydney. Ilektra worked as a special education teacher and completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield in the area of inclusive education. She worked as a researcher at the University of Sheffield,and as a lecturer at the University of Athens and the University of Thessaly, Greece before moving to The University of Sydney. Her research interests include disability, classroom diversity, and curriculum differentiation.

Expensive new government funded website for schools fails to deliver

Students with disabilities often struggle in Australian schools. There have been many inquiries and reports over the years that tell us this. Of course, students with disability struggle for a range of reasons but a major one is the lack of funding for support materials that can be used by teachers with the responsibility of educating them. So when funds do become available it is very important for them to be spent carefully and wisely.

Our post is about a new resource, the Leading Learning 4 all website, which was commissioned by the Australian government in response to the latest review of the Disability Standards for Education in 2015. The resource aims to promote inclusive school practices but we believe it makes some fundamental mistakes.

We decided to air our concerns here because it might help raise awareness of the issues involved and hopefully improve future support and resources for teachers involved in educating children with disability.

What is “Leading Learning 4 all”?

Leading Learning 4 all is a website developed by the Australian Special Education Principals Association and built by Schoolzine Pty Ltd.  The idea for the website is it that it will be a place where teachers and schools can go for ideas and to learn strategies that will help them with the education of children with disability. The website aims to develop a repository of inclusive teaching practices across Australia, which will be added to over time.

It claims to be organised around the Disability Standards for Education for Australian schools and is aimed at school leaders. It cost taxpayers $622,000.

We believe this was money poorly spent and a great opportunity wasted.

The bulk of the resources available on this site are in the form of videos and schools are invited to upload their own.

The website states that these videos “are not intended to be crafted, professionally directed pieces”. The idea is if teachers and schools upload their own videos of what they are doing with their students with disabilities, this will help develop a repository of practice that will be useful to others looking for help.

Although this signals respect for the teaching profession, it also assumes that school practitioners have the means and technical know-how to generate videos that are appropriate for broader use.

One fundamental problem with this site is poor modelling

Teachers and school leaders will look towards the existing videos on the site as a guide. We should expect they would be good models of the things teachers and schools might aim for.

For starters, the videos are both low-tech and low quality, so on a production level alone they do not provide a good model for amateur video producers to work towards.

But we have identified far more serious problems with the videos on this site.

For now, we will highlight just three: poor accessibility, flawed representation of students with disability, and incorrect interpretation of the Disability Standards for Education.

Poor accessibility

The provision of accessibility, such as text captioning—to enable access to information and equitable participation—is basic to any resource intended for students with a disability.

At the time of our investigation of the website, there was a video with the captions presented in the Dutch language and two videos with no captioning at all. The remaining videos only had auto-generated captioning by YouTube.

This practice does not comply with international accessibility expectations and organisations have been asked to lift their game. For example, the US Ministry of Justice last year ruled that the automatically generated captions on Berkeley University’s YouTube channel “were inaccurate and incomplete, making the content inaccessible to individuals with hearing disabilities”.

This is not the only accessibility problem with the videos and we have listed others below:

  • no pre-recorded sign language, or available scripts of the videos
  • continual background music in the videos that could distort what viewers hear
  • many resources are in PDF format, which means they need to be downloaded and filled-in, presumably using a pen or pencil. No other formats are provided
  • no glossary or plain English information
  • no contacts for translation or interpreting services. While the website can be translated using Google Translate, this service lacks accuracy in translating policy and legislation. In a multilingual society like Australia providing support to families from non-English speaking background to access information in their language is an essential advocacy practice
  • The information provided for sensory disability (as a handout) makes no reference to digital accessibility. In our fast-changing technological world, teachers need to be aware of how technology can be both a facilitator and a barrier to students with disability

Flawed representations of students with disability

Students are present in just 7 of the 17 videos available on the website in the Interpreting the Disability Standards for Education section. In these 7 videos, 11 of the 12 students featured have an obvious disability.

One indicative video in the section Reasonable Adjustments with the title ‘Adjustments in the Curriculum’, has the credit “Sue and Students, Teacher [school name]”. The teacher, Sue, is sitting between two girls and starts talking to the camera:

“The two girls are from grade 3/4. One is a hearing-impaired girl and the other girl is not hearing impaired. They both work on Maths on money recognition and simple addition and equivalency. And they are working with me together in the deaf facility because they are at a similar level and it gives them some focus with me in a smaller group situation. So girls, let’s have a look…”

Sue keeps talking to the girls for another two seconds and the video ends. The ‘girls’, who have no names and no voice and who have been introduced by their impairment (or lack thereof), are treated more like props than thinking, feeling humans.

This is a huge concern because a central feature of inclusive education is the use of person-first language. While there are exceptions with some communities or individuals electing to be known as ‘Deaf’ or ‘Autistic’, this is a personal choice and should not be assumed.

School children should therefore never be referred to as a ‘hearing impaired girl’ or a ‘Down syndrome boy’ because of the risk that they will be defined by their disability. Disability is only ever an aspect of humanity and not the sum of who a person is. The respectful use of language should be a basic consideration in any resource relating to inclusive education.

It is also not at all clear what adjustment is being made in this video example, what relevance this adjustment has to hearing impairment, or why the lesson needs to occur in the deaf facility, especially when the second girl is not hearing impaired.

Rather than an exemplar of inclusive practice, this video example appears to be about reverse integration—a concept that is deeply entrenched in special education traditions.

Interpretation of the Disability Standards for Education

Both the 2012 and the 2015 reviews of the Disability Standards for Education have commented on the lack of confidence that schools and teachers feel in interpreting the key terms of the Standards. Despite the emphasis on training, schools still struggle with the concepts of ‘on the same basis as’, ‘consultation’ and ‘reasonable adjustments’, which are all examples of the key terms of the Standards.

The examples provided in the Leading Learning 4 all website do not assist in clarifying these terms. They instead provide a poor model to guide practice. This is exemplified in a video on ‘consulting with students’ where collaboration between teachers and a physiotherapist to develop a fitness program to enable a student’s participation in sport is discussed, without once mentioning whether or how the student was consulted in the process.

Why the problems with this site need to be fixed

Everyone involved in the education of students with disability should understand the fundamental concepts and practices underpinning inclusive education; concepts as simple as ‘consultation’ and practices as important as using person-first language.

We strongly support the development of quality resources for teachers and schools to enhance their inclusive practices. Unfortunately, the Australian government’s Leading Learning 4 all website falls short of this aim and may lead well-meaning educators to unknowingly engage in practices that are both discriminatory toward, and stigmatising of, students with disability.

Rather than addressing poor practice, this website risks perpetuating it. And, if the Australian Government’s own inclusion website does not model inclusive practice, who will?

An example of videos that DO model expectations and good practice

We thought you might like to see what we do consider to be a great example of modelling and expectations.

The Reasonable Adjustments Project developed in England produced a manual and DVDs in 2005. The DVDs are now available on YouTube. They are of high quality and consistently use sign language interpretation and embedded subtitles.

The Leading Learning 4 all website represents a costly, missed opportunity for the Australian Government to do the same for the Australian school context.

 

Ilektra Spandagou is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She has been involved in teacher education in special and inclusive education both in Greece and Australia. She has experience working with general and special education teachers in the area of theories of inclusive education, and the nexus of policy and school practice. Ilektra’s research interests include inclusion, disability, comparative education and classroom diversity. Her publications include the book Inclusive Education: International Policy & Practice.

Linda Graham is an Associate Professor in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She coordinates Inclusive Education Theory, Policy and Practice, a core unit in the Faculty of Education’s Master of Inclusive Education. She leads QUT’s Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour Research Group (@SELB_QUT) and a number of research projects in the area of inclusive education. She can often be found on Twitter: @drlindagraham

 

Ben Whitburn is a Lecturer of Inclusive Education in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University. Ben draws on critical disability studies, policy sociology, and insider perspectives to research and teach principles of inclusive schooling in theory, policy and teacher practice. He tweets @BenWhitburn