What’s the point of differentiation? #PedagooHampshire

Everyone assumes that differentiation is the right approach to mixed ability teaching, but does it actually work? Do students necessarily maximise their learning and what is the psychological effect on students of differentiating tasks and resources?

It was with these concerns in mind that I researched the merits of differentiation by task. I do it in my teaching, but am not always convinced it’s the right thing to do. I often feel quite uncomfortable differentiating resources and tasks and even more so when I group students by ability.

The first theory I explored was the Pygmalion effect. The self-fulfilling prophecy and labelling theory by Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) was a study of one elementary school where all children were tested for IQ in order to predict academic potential. The teachers were told that 20% of (randomly selected) pupils could be expected to show rapid intellectual growth within a year. The children were re-tested at the end of the period and it was found that the sample population did indeed show greater gains in IQ, despite them having been selected at random. The implication is, of course, that teachers’ expectations significantly affect their pupils’ performance. Rosenthal and Jacobson speculated that the teachers’ manner, facial expressions, degree of friendliness and encouragement conveyed their pre-formed impression, which produced a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Pygmalion effect is what I fear from differentiating resources and tasks. I worry that by grouping students by ability in a seating plan or allocating students targeted worksheets serves merely to reinforce feelings of superiority or inadequacy. I next turned to Vygotsky’s (1997) sociocultural perspective on learning. He tied cognitive development to social interaction and makes several pivotal observations about how we learn:

  1. The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the area of learning between the child’s current development level and the level of development which could be achieved through adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (who are already operating in the child’s ZPD).
  2. Pupils learn best when they choose their own activities with encouragement from their teacher to tackle challenges.
  3. Pupils construct meaning (and therefore understanding) through interactions with others. This is known as social constructivism.

So in our teaching, we should:

  • direct pupils to work in their ZPD (and therefore differentiate the resources, tasks and outcomes)
  • give pupils a choice in their learning activities
  • place pupils in mixed ability groupings so that they can co-construct knowledge (the more able pupil learns through explaining and elaborating and the less able pupil learns through questioning and enquiring)

What does this mean for differentiation?

I teach in a sixth form college and have carried out a survey of all the students I teach: 70 Year 12 and 13 mixed-ability students in Geography and also 20 Gifted and Talented students in one of my Target A* groups. All students come from a large number of partner schools in the area and have target grades of A to E.

Question 1: Have you ever had lessons where resources or tasks were different for different ability students?

  • Most students reported being put in sets from primary school. The most common subjects were Maths, English, Science and MFL.
  • Many reported differentiated worksheets in lessons according to target grade (or Higher/Foundation level GCSEs).
  • The G&T students said they were usually given an extra task or more difficult homework in addition to higher level worksheets.

Question 2: Have you ever been put in a seating plan by ability, that you are aware?

  • The majority of students said they weren’t aware of ever having been put in a seating plan apart from the G&T students who were either regularly seated together or deliberately in mixed ability groupings.
  • Some students did, however, mention being seated by table in some subjects ‘named’ the A*/A table; the B table; the C/D table.

Question 3: How did either of these activities affect your learning?

Positive  Negative
(having different worksheets)

  • were more suited to my ability
  • made me feel like the smart kid
  • let me go for harder activities because I want to push myself
  • pushed me further than I otherwise would
  • I felt more motivated
  • It allowed me to work at the difficulty I was comfortable with

(mixed ability groupings)

  • I felt teaching others helped me to understand the work
  • I was pushed to do better (by my peers)

(students given a choice of activities)

  • This had a positive effect on my learning as I was able to challenge myself further
  • We were given sheets without being asked what level we wanted and this was unfair
  • I would always prefer to be asked which worksheet I wanted
  • If I was given easier work, I wasn’t challenged and didn’t learn anything
  • Sometimes (being given a worksheet) it made you feel thick
  • In English and Maths it made me feel like I was incapable of higher grades because of what my teacher gave me



I think there are obvious links here between the survey responses and Vygotsky’s theory. It certainly does appear that students like working in their ZPD, rather than in their ‘comfort zone’, and that they want to be able to choose which level they work at. This makes perfect sense to me. How can I possibly know what prior knowledge each student in my class has of a topic? How can I possibly know what they want to achieve at A level?

The other message that clearly comes from the responses is the Pygmalion effect of labelling students by ability. Some said that the tables were openly labelled the A*/A table, the C/D table, etc., while others said that while the teacher never explicitly named each table, everyone “knew their place”. The fact that a student is placed on the ‘D table’ and then given a ‘D grade’ worksheet surely ensures that they will never achieve higher?

The G&T students had a particularly insightful response to the survey. They had identical responses to the other students about the first 2 questions (they come from the same schools), but their experience of differentiation as higher ability pupils was quite different:

  • It’s helpful if you’re higher ability and put with higher ability students but not helpful if with lower ability because you’re not challenged
  • Being higher ability meant I was often left to get on with my work alone – I felt neglected
  • Putting higher ability learners at the back of the classroom only isolates them from discussion with the teacher
  • I enjoyed being put with similar ability pupils because it enabled me to be challenged in lessons and bounce ideas off other people
  • Being grouped together was good because it allowed for a more challenging environment
  • Being grouped by mixed ability was just disruptive because we either had to entertain the others or wait for them to catch up
  • Additional harder tasks are very useful, but follow up would be even better

So, again, what does this mean for differentiation?

I think that Vygotsky was right in his first two proposals: namely, that all students should be working in their ZPD and should be given the choice as to what level they work at (albeit with guidance from the teacher). All students, regardless of their target grade, need to be challenged and stretched but they must be given autonomy over their learning decisions. Perhaps the D grade pupil might not be able to tackle the ‘explain’ or ‘justify’ task just yet, but give them support to scaffold their response, and they’ll surely get there.

Vygotsky’s third proposal is less clear. On the whole, the G&T students did not have positive learning experiences of working in mixed ability groups, although many of the other cohort did. The G&T students’ reports of feeling “neglected” and “isolated” reveal a classroom truth which I suspect we are all guilty of: namely, letting the high ability students get on with the work while the teacher supports less able students. I don’t profess to know the solution to this – I suspect it lies somewhere in well-designed carousel activities, project work or even in extra-curricular clubs – but it is something we must all be mindful of.

To conclude, my anxieties about differentiating tasks and resources appear unfounded. Both Vygotsky and my students say that it’s the most effective way to promote learning and while I still have not solved seating plans, I am much more comfortable in my approach to differentiation in the classroom.

Liz Bentley-Pattison

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