Differentiation (2) – Language

Before I write any more on this topic, I should make it clear (especially as it’s about to become obvious) that I’m really new to this particular way of thinking.  What is driving me to write this down, will also (ironically) become clear as I’m writing the page.  This area of thinking about learning is fascinating, but for me at least, unexplored and I think I’m pointing myself in a new and interesting direction.

This page is taken (more or less directly) from an article that was recently given to me by Anna Pendry at OUDE (Britton 1987).  As you can immediately see, lots of water has passed under the bridge since then – anyone who might like to help me with the next step in my learning journey could easily add a comment to point me in the direction of some new reading!

Reading Britton’s summary of some of Vytgosky’s thoughts is really quite exciting.  It offers a view of the teacher who, whist not transmitting received knowledge, is nonetheless an active participant in the learning of the students.  It also causes us to question whether silence in classrooms is useful in all but restricted cases, and it gives us indications of practical things that we might do in class to help students learn.  All of this adds up to differentiation, especially if we see differentiation as finding ways to enable learning, to support the development of skills and the deep learning of new aspects of the world.

How does it do this?  It does it mainly by talking of language.  According to Britton Vytgosky brought four new aspects to our understanding of the way that language and learning are related:

  • word meanings evolve during childhood.  This means we can’t assume that the child understands a word in the same way that we do (which seemed obvious to me).  It also must mean that the ways that children use words will change, and have the capacity to become increasingly useful and thoughtful.
  • Vytgosky saw that human learning happens in two directions.Ideas ‘from below’ form spontaneously in the mind of the child, as result of inference from experience.  Ideas ‘from above’ are given by teachers and then ground themselves in the ideas and knowledge already present in the mind of the child.  The upward growth of spontaneous ideas, and the grounding of acquired ideas is characteristic, for Vytgosky, of human learning.
  • Mastery of written language was a profound effect on the achievement of abstract thinking.  Britton argues that it is the constancy of language, ‘grafted’ onto the immediacy of spoken language that helps us reflect on meaning and therefore more precisely hone and express our ideas; and
  • Speech in infancy is the antecedent of thinking.  Vytgosky’s idea is that the ‘speech for oneself’ that young children use to broadcast their attitudes, thoughts, experiences is increasingly internalised.  As this internalisation takes place children think out loud less, but the talking goes on in their heads.  The nature of this un-spoken language changes from verbal to pre-verbal (or perhaps post-verbal) symbolic thought language:
  • It is freedom that characterises the fluidity of thought and accounts for the necessity of imposing organisation on our thoughts when we want to communicate them (Britton p24).

So, what are the implications of these interesting ideas for us, as teachers?

The bi-directional nature of learning put forward here seems to me to be a workable compromise between the prophets of pupil-led learning and the ultras of teacher-led education and puts a healthy stress on the social nature of the way that we construct knowledge of the world around us.  It has increasingly seemed to me that the teacher is in a privileged position in the classroom, they do know things about the world, about their subject, about teaching their subject and about their pupils that the pupils, the teaching assistants and visitors from outside do not.  Pupils aren’t empty vessels though – as we know.  The best teachers build on pre-existing ideas, bring the outside world in, take pupils’ ideas seriously and work consciously to bring ideas and present concepts in a way that they will root in young people’s minds.  Whilst perhaps not obvious at first, this is also differentiation – in the sense that thinking this way about teaching history will enable us to help more students access the material that we’re offering them.  It also has the potential to enable them to achieve more than they would have if ideas about the pupils’ viewpoints and perspectives were not properly addressed.  We’re not only supporting learning, we’re challenging students to go further by challenging their views of the world.

The idea that childrens’ word meanings evolve reminds me of Lee’s contention that learning history is about the replacement of less powerful for increasingly powerful and accurate ideas about history.  This has clear implications for us when thinking about differentiation – instead of focusing too much about the level of attainment that a student has reached, not only can we instead focus on the nature and quality of their conceptions,  which might offer us a way forward, but we can indeed look forward to helping them develop these increasingly powerful conceptions.  These implications lead us to the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development.

The zone of proximal development seems to mean the attainment that a pupil cannot reach on their own, but which they might be capable of reaching if helped by others.  This help takes on a particular meaning though.  Firstly,  from the idea that learning is bi-directional, Vytgosky characterises learning as social, that learning is internalised shared social behaviour, something done together rather than alone.  Vytgosky also talks of the teacher ‘lending consciousness’, which Britton explains as:

interacting in such a way that [the teacher’s] awareness of snags and obstacles [in the way of learning] are made available to learners […] and enabling them to perform in this relationship tasks they could not achieve if left to themselves.

The ZPD is not just ‘what the students should be able to do next’, but what a student can learn to do with others and with the right kind of support.

The idea of the ZPD makes one consider the type of support on offer to students, see below.  However, there is a tension at the heart of an idea that, on the one hand stresses the idea of the development of internalised speech, of socially constructed ideas grounding themselves in a fertile bed of spontaneously generated concepts, whilst on the other hand maintains a sharp focus on behaviours and on the attainment of ‘tasks’.   This is not easy stuff, and I would like to consider this tension further (but I should probably be marking dissertations, so this will have to wait!).

Finally, given that this set of ideas places so much importance on language, there are further implications for our use of speech, of the written word, and for the way that we support the development of such use of language in our students.    Writing frames have become common place in schools and commonly appear in lists of ‘differentation’ techniques.  Yet are we using them in a way that offers support, and challenge; or are we using them in ways that are too focused on the completion of tasks and the ticking of criteria?  Do we plan for the ways that words will be used in our lesson?  Do we lend words to students to help them express new ideas that we’ve planned for them to encounter?

Britton, James, Vytgosky’s Contribution to Pedagogical Theory English in Education Vol.21 No 3, (1987)

Lee, P., Putting Principles into Practice: Understanding History in Learn, C.O.H.P. et al., 2004. How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom, National Academies Press.,

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