ERG SES C 14, Context and Content in Education
This paper explores the concept of differentiation in an educational context. The aim of the paper is to discuss theoretically how differentiation can be understood, how it can relate to the capacity for diversity in schools, and in which way the concept could function as a framework for comparing teaching and learning practices across educational contexts. Differentiation is a widely used term within the pedagogical field, but it has only to some extent been scientifically conceptualized. Reviewing the application, perception and operationalization of differentiation in research, literature and policy documents in different countries, reveals both differences and similarities.
In Norway differentiation is closely related to the concept of adapted education, a statutory principle established in 1975 (Education Act, 2010, section 1-3) which intended to “provide satisfactory and adequate teaching based on the individual’s abilities and aptitudes” (The Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training, 2017, section 1-3). Whilst adapted teaching is perceived as a political measure to deal with students’ diversity, differentiation is often considered as a pedagogical tool for conducting adapted education (Jenssen, 2011). Like Norway, Denmark and Sweden also employ two categories of differentiation; organizational and pedagogical differentiation. The first category refers to dividing students into ability groups, while the latter refers to differentiation within the classroom by offering a diversity in content, tempo, progression and working- and teaching methods. In Scandinavia there has been a change from organizational differentiation to pedagogical differentiation over the last 20-30 years – a change which relates to the development of a school for all (Blossing, Imsen, & Moos, 2014).
In a British educational context, differentiation is defined as “the practice of acknowledging and allowing for different levels of attainment in a group of learners” (Wallace, 2015). This refers to providing different activities, different levels of teaching materials and assessment based on expected results as well as ability or target grouping. In British education policy, personalised learning is the ideal. Differentiation in this perspective is a premise, perceived as a response to students’ diversity (Department for children, 2008).
In German literature, differentiation is related to the tension between the individualistic and the collectivistic perspective. It is conceived as the opposite of integration, and the concept can be used on both the individual and on the organisational level. Like Scandinavia, Germany also divides differentiation into two categories; organizational and pedagogical differentiation (Tenorth & Tippelt, 2007, p. 162).
Looking to the United States and Canada differentiated instruction is the commonly used concept. In this approach, differentiation is perceived as a practical educational tool. Differentiated instruction is defined as “A form of instruction that seeks to maximize each student’s growth by recognizing that students have different ways of learning, different interests, and different ways of responding to instruction” (Ravitch, 2007, p. 75). Differentiated instruction corresponds to pedagogical differentiation, and relies on a heterogenic learning environment (Tomlinson, 2014). Organizational differentiation is known as tracking or ability grouping.
It appears that in Scandinavia, Europe and North America differentiation is predominantly perceived as a kind of positive discrimination intended to compensate for students’ diversity. To some extent, this seems to be more of a generally accepted apprehension than a scientific conceptualization. The differences are connected to emphasizing either organizational differentiation or pedagogical differentiation. This paper argues for the need of a further conceptualization, and seeks to contribute to the field by making a theoretical discussion on differentiation based on a more system-oriented approach.
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