Differentiation in Education: Is it a right or a luxury?

Mark Holmwood

As I begin writing this article, I am wondering if differentiation is here to stay or if some other ideology will push it to one side. First, let’s think about some of the practical issues related to differentiation.

Modern multimedia classroom

The traditional classroom

You have a class of thirty kids (children for us Brits). Some are average, some pretty good, a few are less good and some just can’t be bothered. And then you have some that are brilliant and they might or might not be bothered depending on the subject and if they like the teacher.

In short: There is a class of thirty very different children.

As a teacher, you try to interest them all. Help the ones that struggle, keep the average ones plodding on and stimulate the ones that have done all the course work and the homework and are ready to go to the next year.

Most good teachers do a pretty reasonable job, but it is hard. If we are completely honest, there are always classes where some kids (sorry, children) suffer. They either suffer because they don’t get the attention they need or they suffer because they should really be doing something much more challenging.


Hence differentiation. Quite hard with traditional teaching, but lo and behold; with the advent of computers and digital stuff, we have a completely different ball game. Differentiation is a click of a switch or a press enter on our keyboard. But hang on; is it that easy? Well actually with many online products, yes it is.

So (you will have to take my word for it for now), we have a situation where differentiation is extremely easy. Children can work at their own pace, at their own level and teachers can help and assist where needed. A whole new classroom experience. Those bright kids can benefit from being “set free” from the class and delve into realms of information, experience and adventure, while teacher helps those that really need someone to guide them.

Just one little problem

To me this seems like a great scenario, but there is just one little problem. In my contact with schools I am hearing things like: “This doesn’t fit with our policy”. “Our children all need to take the same tests” “We are not allowed to do this.”

Maybe my view is extreme, but is this not a crime to prevent a child from learning? All the facilities are in place, but kids cannot proceed to higher levels because of policy? I guess there must be some reasons for putting policy over learning, but it doesn’t feel right.

Actually, I have the feeling it is getting worse. In my school days, we were streamed into ability groups across seven classes. Does that still happen? Not in the schools I know.

What is your view? Do you teach at a school where kids are free to learn and advance at any pace, or are they held back because they need to stay in the group?

Perhaps some dispute the advantages of differentiation or believe it is more important for the strong to help the weak.


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