Clare Jarmy on differentiated learning

Posted on 13th February 2018

To truly differentiate between the learning needs of pupils, teachers need to develop a personalised approach that won’t add to their workload, says Bedales Head of Philosophy, Religion and Ethics and Head of Academic Enrichment Clare Jarmy in the TES – and she thinks she has found one.

Most students are brilliant at some things and really struggle with others – the student who never writes enough but who has an outstanding eye for detail, or the student with the fantastic memory who struggles to make an argument her own.

Clare says: “When we really get to know students, we see that they have a unique blend of dispositions and talents, as well as things they find really challenging. This makes differentiation done in the most common way – a top, middle and bottom task – highly problematic. We have got too much into the habit of thinking in terms of groups, not in terms of individuals”.

Mary Simpson, Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Edinburgh, argues that this is because teachers do not have enough concrete evidence of what level students are working at to personalise their learning. Also, teachers confuse the means and ends of differentiation. It does not matter that students are all doing different tasks – what matters is that they are doing the right task.

So, how do we deliver great, differentiated lessons that don’t cater just to broad groups, but treat students as individuals?  One suggestion Simpson gives might be worth trying: working in partnership with students to identify their best work and using that to set targets for improvement.

To achieve this, teachers and students keep an ongoing personal portfolio of ‘best work’.

Now and again, a student might deem a piece of work worthy of the portfolio. They then discuss with their teacher why it is that this piece of work should be included. The teacher can challenge them to think about why they think this work is good. Perhaps the student is wrong: perhaps it’s just well set-out or neat. The teacher can correct this assumption, then work with the student to set targets for what to work on next.

Clare says: “This has the potential to be really powerful. It is an approach that is completely individual to a specific student and their particular talents and struggles. It also gives both teachers and students what they need. For the teachers, it provides more concrete evidence of the level at which students are actually working, right now. For students, it provides an opportunity for individualised goals towards shared aims. It is truly a partnership. More broadly, it places the individual at the centre. Isn’t this, after all, what differentiation is meant to be all about?”.

The full article can be read on the TES website here (subscription may be required).

TES | Clare Jarmy