Differentiation: an old concept for a new classroom

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Differentiated pedagogy has its roots in the 1920s movement of New Education, which believed in the potential of every child to learn and in the development of schools for every child. Maria Sfyroera explains why it is even more relevant today.

The school classroom has always been heterogeneous, but nowadays this is particularly pronounced due to migration and the formation of multicultural societies. In every classroom, there are children with different cultural practices, experiences, motivations and interests… with different rhythms, knowledge, representations, strategies, cognitive profiles and competences. Therefore, we are now concerned with the differences among children not only from the perspective of their academic skills; we are interested in the individual as a “biography”, with all the elements of identity they carry.

We know today that the child constructs knowledge, but this construction is supported by his or her cooperation with others. Differentiated pedagogy is therefore interested in the individual without ignoring the community. Its main concern is how to take into account the differences among students and among their families, while also guiding them to share meaning and common experiences. That is, how to organise activities that will give every child the space and time to grow.

This approach highlights the difference between “differentiation” and “personalisation”. Unlike personalised learning, differentiated learning does not imply looking for materials and tools that will help the child work individually according to his or her level. And it does imply student groups of different levels, which allow children to develop with the help of a more “competent” peer (through scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development).

Looking at the differentiation of children only through the lens of their academic performance has led us to search for techniques of differentiation such as flexible layout of school desks, graded activities, multiple intelligence options, variety of aids and rhythms, simulations, and texts of varying difficulty level. Even though many of these techniques are effective, they do not cover the essence of differentiated pedagogy. And that is because they are a superficial response to the issue of differentiation.

Differentiation is not a method or a technique. It is an open perception based on the understanding of the needs of the students, on listening to them, on the development of open and flexible frameworks and communities of learning (particularly attainable during the preschool age). These give meaning to children’s activities, and a reason to engage and participate in them. This perspective does not want the educator to simply execute the techniques, but rather to be a reflective practitioner who stands critically in front of his or her actions and continuously redesigns them.

Maria Sfyroera is an Associate Professor at the Department of Preschool Education, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. She has worked in the field of teaching and learning, multicultural education and teacher education.