Differentiation in classrooms is presented as a means of ensuring children with lesser abilities engage with the curriculum, children with moderate abilities wrestle it and children with higher abilities transcend it. For the higher ability children, there is the allure of extension activities too which enable them to explore bigger existential and metaphorical challenges than whether they are a Level 4+ or 5- in literacy.
The problem is that differentiation may well have the opposite effect that it intends. By separating out ‘lower ability’ children means that everyone knows who they are – and to everyone then staring at who’s on the top table. This can lead to those ‘lower’ ability children switching off and becoming even less able than they had been previously; until of course they find themselves in a learning situation which is undifferentiated and at which they find themselves at the same starting gate as their alleged more talented peers. This is the case that many artists offer when they visit schools and work with so called ‘mixed ability’ classes.
A music friend told me of a case where he was trying to help a young girl count on the beat by cueing her in with a downward arm movement. This had quite the opposite effect in that it led to her being completely confused by the notion of coming in on the beat and switched her off from the task altogether. His attempted helping of her led to being significantly ‘unhelped’ and in differentiation parlance, she moved from medium to low ability in the wave of a hand and would have found herself sitting at the musical dunces table had such a table existed in that classroom.
The notion that helping can cause the opposite of the desired effect has its echoes in how complexity theory informs school improvement improvement agendas. Complexity theory would suggest that the emergence of school league table winners causes the emergence of school league table losers. When schools are engaged in competitions for pupil numbers, for positions on a league table, for higher CVA ratings, it is not as if they are running on an Olympic race track with competing athletes to see who can run 100m the fastest: this competition means that the ‘front runners’ are partially responsible for disrupting the state of the race track of those lagging ‘behind’. They may have started at the same starting gate (which is unlikely) – but the high achieving schools then manage to dig up the race track for those who are slightly behind them; leading to the winners winning by an even bigger margin than they demonstrated at the start of ‘the race’.
Our differentiation of lower, mid and higher ability pupils similarly is not one merely of categorising pupils competences: it also acts to cause those differences in those competences and so un-helps the very people it is trying to help.