Differentiation in science lessons

Good differentiation in science is hard, perfect differentiation is impossible and quite a lot is probably ineffective and perhaps even damaging to learning. Let me try to explain why.

What does good differentiation look like?

Let’s start by thinking about what good differentiation looks like. Differentiation is about making sure that all students are appropriately challenged. As John Hattie suggests “if you are not challenged, you do not make mistakes. If you do not make mistakes, feedback is useless.” Too hard and students will not get the intrinsic satisfaction of solving a problem. Too easy, and students will get bored. Differentiation is not about lowering expectations of what can be achieved, we just need to vary the approach of how to get there. So how can we appropriately challenge all students in our classroom?

What is not great differentiation?

I don’t think the answer is to give every student an individual worksheet. Blue sheets for students graded C/D and pink sheets for students graded A/B. The reason this doesn’t work is it assumes the teacher has an accurate and complete understanding of where each student is on that topic, before the lesson begins. As we all know, this is impossible and therefore pre-determined differentiated tasks can do more to cap and limit student understanding in science than support development.

Defining objectives for all, most and some is admitting defeat from the outset. Let’s raise our expectations and adapt our teaching. I am reminded here of this great, but scientifically dubious quote from Dr Norman Vincent Peale: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

Let’s learn together

Another, perhaps more important problem with individualised approaches to differentiation is that we lose the opportunity to learn together; for me, this is the point of school. Children learn when they learn together (Vygotsky) and the more we break up tasks the more we fragment and temper this hugely beneficial way to learn.

How can we do differentiation better?

What’s the solution then? I think the best differentiation is twofold. Firstly, it requires teachers to adapt the teaching in the lesson in real time for individual groups – this needs good checks for understanding. If students are finding  the work easy then the scaffolding is removed. If students are struggling then get modelling and adapt your teaching approach, not your expectations of what can be achieved – differentiation is not about lowering the bar. Secondly, make sure you have a proper understanding of progression for the concept you are teaching; this will allow you to select which of the knowledge and skills that could be taught should  be taught.

Further listening and reading