Differentiation (1) – The Difference Engine

The Difference Engine: Driving Learning without Ability Labels.

I’ve already written about how thinking about differentiation without using ability labels is hard, and how it challenges a number of preconceptions that won’t die easily. It seems that a good way to start might be to set out the ideas that I am not proposing we abandon altogether. It is true that:

  • Students learn at different rates, in different ways;
  • Students differ in how well they can do things;
  • Students differ in the amount of stuff they know; and
  • Some students find it harder than others to improve.

We should add an important caveat to each assumption. The words “AT THE MOMENT” should be added to the end of each. There may be limits to what students can achieve, but we shouldn’t add our expectations of low attainment to the list. A strong belief that change, improvement and increasing ability are all possible is the foundation on which I’m going to try to build my professional practice from now on.

You might sigh, frown and you’d certainly be entitled to ask ‘what are the implications for practice’, or even (if you were tetchy) ‘isn’t ‘optimism’ a pretty flimsy foundation for the practice of teaching?’. Let us bolster this flimsy optimisim by examining other ways of thinking behind ‘differentiation’, to see if there are practical implications for our practice. We’ve already disrupted the idea that ability is a fixed quotient that can be measured statistically and scientifically. Instead I’d like to look at two models of difference; Learning Styles and Multiple Inteligences. One often hears these terms used, sometimes interchangeably.  They’re some of the things that used to make me feel guilty. I’d often think, “I should really do more to cater for kinaesthetic learners’, or ‘should I do a learning style survey to find out what ‘type’ of students are in my class?’.

The first thing that I (re)learned, is that I don’t necessarily need to feel guitly about not doing these things. To quote Frank Coffield, professor of Education at the IOE, in an article in the TES.

Tutors who are using learning styles should check that they are not wasting their own and their students’ time by using an instrument for which there is no good research evidence.

I say ‘necessarily’ because there might be benefits in thinking about the different ways in which students learn (nb, not the ways in which different students learn). Howard Gardner’s ideas seem to suggest that we all learn in the same, highly diverse ways. Gardner’s multiple intelligences are intelligences which we all possess, and which we all use, each one to a lesser or greater extent. I should make it clear at this point that my own understanding of Gardner is based on reading an excellent chapter in
Moon & Shelton-Mayes book, which relies on extracts from Gardner’s own work.

Gardner began ‘with the problems humans solve and worked back to the ‘intelligences’ that must be responsible’ (p43), and thus made a list of candidate intelligences. A candidate was “only included if reasonable evidence to support its membership was found” (p43). Gardner’s theory is therefore just that – a model for thinking about human intelligence. It’s a very interesting one, which might be useful, but isn’t directive, and puts forward the following list of ‘intelligences’:

  • Logical-Mathematical
  • Linguistic
  • Spatial
  • Bodily Kinaesthetic
  • Musical
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal

Three aspects of Gardner’s theory arise. The first is that these intelligences are formed and used in a cultural context, “language may manifest itself as writing in one culture, as oratory in another culture, and as the secret language of anagrams in a third” (p.40). I would argue that cultures exist on top of one another, and the most successful individuals will learn to recognise the value in, and to some extent learn to move and act in multiple cultural spheres. Gardner’s theory implicitly recognises the cultural element in valuing different ‘intelligences’ and even different forms of intelligence.

The second is that these intelligences are separate and yet connected, “nearly every cultural role of any degree of sophistication requires a combination of intelligences” (p44). An airline pilot is required to think spatially, mathmatically, and yet to move physically to control his aircraft. He (or she) communicates with traffic control, with the crew of the aircraft, with mechanics, and with travellers. In short no ‘type’ of intelligence can exist on its own. This seems to me to be a reflection of Gardner’s approach of attempting to theorise about how human intelligence works in practice. The categories he puts forward are attempts to classify, candidates in a tentative model of thought, not finely delineated boxes.

The third aspect is that intelligences can be used to access one another, they are both content and medium. For instance, one could explore Maths concepts through a kinaesthetic, musical or linguistic metaphor. This could go one way or another – bringing in more and more aspects of human intelligence might enable more students to access a concept, or it might serve simply to confuse. It should be obvious in a way, though, that teachers eat and breath metaphor, similie and analogy, in seeking to explain the world, to to help others to explain the world. Moon and Shelton-Mayes sound two notes of caution in respecf of this aspect of Garnder’s theory. The first is that the analogy and learnign from it must be re-translatable. The example they give is of mathmatical techniques learned through linguistic intelligence. Unless the mathmatical is understood, ‘cookbook style mathmatical performance results’. The learner can read and apply the recipe, but don’t understand the underlying concepts. The second note of caution is that there is no ‘necessary reason why a problem in one domain must be translatable’, especially as the learning to be done becomes more complex.

So, what has this got to do with differentiation? I’d argue that it helps us focus lesson thinking about differences between pupils, but the different ways in which we might help our students, support them in learning about the world. At the very least the list below might give us a checklist of ways that we might approach a concept, task or lesson, or might help us audit a scheme of work or key stage plan so that we’re using as the different ‘intelligences’ in the best possible ways.

Bodily Kinaesthetic

It is vitally important to point out again that these are not ‘learning styles’. Nothing in this theory suggests that learners are of particular types. It may be that learners have preferred learning styles. However it would be a leap too far to argue that, if students have preferred learning stlyes, that we should find out what these are and tailor our instructions to meet these learning preferences. If a student has one preferred learning style it suggests that the other ‘intelligences’ in Gardner’s theory are under-developed, and that we should be helping students to nurture the range of the intelligences necessary for successful human development. Gardner’s theory suggests (as we’ve seen) that some learning can really only be done in either one, or in a small subset of these intelligences. By pandering to one ‘style’ we are compounding a student’s difficulties in the other areas. If Moon & Shelton-Mayes are right, this will mean that when a student meets a concept or idea, or tries to learn a skill utilising an intelligence which he or she has not been encouraged to develop, there might be no other way in which to approach that learning.

Finally, Gardner’s ideas help me think about differentiation in another way. In considering different ways of thinking and understanding we are, partly at least, thinking about different ‘ways in’ for students learning new and complicated things. In other words, one aspect of Gardner’s work is that it helps us think about access, in a way that brings us back to the ‘optimism’ my imagined critic accused me of. If instead of thinking about the twenty five (or thirty five) differentiated brains that we have to cater for in each lesson (an impossibility I would say), we can think of ways in for the students, sometimes as groups working or thinking together, sometimes as a cohort, and sometimes as individuals. This will sometimes lead us to particular tasks, stimulus materials or teaching styles for particular topics. It might at other times encourage us to take a ‘coverage’ approach, and consider the spread of tasks and types of tasks that we’ve been using over a period of time. All tasks differentiate, help children to access. There are no tried and tested tasks that always differentiate well, because each topic, each class and each child is different. Gardner’s ideas might help us manage these ideas realistically, but also in a way that does not determine (or impose) students’ levels of success.

Mayes, A.S. & Moon, B., 1993. Teaching and Learning in the Secondary School 1st ed., Routledge.

Coffield, F., Times Higher Education – Revealing figures behind the styles. Available at: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=182018&sectioncode=26 [Accessed April 9, 2010].

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