Educational Trends are as Useless as Political Slogans


mastery over differentiation


When you have no idea what you are doing and how to improve your flagging results you reach for buzz words like “differentiate” and “mastery”. The ploy buys you time while you quickly search for the next trend before the promise of your last one becomes undone:


Schools will witness a shift in jargon this year. Differentiation is out. Mastery is in. Mark my words.

In his memoir, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education, former Eton headmaster Tony Little recounts the delightful story of workmen at the school uncovering fragments of a wall painting under some wood panelling. The images, from around 1520, are believed to be the earliest representation of a school scene in England. A banner headline from Roman scholar Quintilian crowns the scene “Virtuo preceptoris est ingeniorum notare discrimina”, meaning “the excellence of the teacher is to identify the difference in talents of students”. Or, in a word, differentiation.

It’s not a complex idea, but differentiation is difficult to get right. All teachers know that matching their teaching to students’ various needs, aptitudes and preferred styles of learning is the key challenge in a classroom. The fact that teachers have to do this for 30 students at once makes it even more difficult. You could have an entire teaching career of purposeful practice – more than 10,000 hours – and still not quite crack it.

Different cultures treat differentiation in different ways. I remember training high school teachers in New York and being told that they “differentiate by sending students to different rooms”. While teaching in the Middle East I learned that deep cultural assumptions lead to differentiation by gender and age; boys are taught in morning classes, girls in the afternoon.

But recently a dose of an eastern-inspired “mastery” has entered our schools, with the impact in maths being measured by an Education Endowment Foundation report. It’s caught the attention of policymakers, and earlier this year the Department for Education flew in teachers from Shanghai to raise standards with their “mastery” style. The Oxford University Press has also produced a paper exploring mastery in maths and how it can raise achievement. The national curriculum frameworks for English and maths are now rooted in it.

At the heart of the Chinese classroom is the teacher’s unshakeable belief that all children are capable of learning anything if that learning is presented in the right way. The idea works on the basis that understanding is the result of high intention, sincere effort and intelligent execution, and that difficulty is pleasurable.



Click on the link to read Keep Politics Out of the Classroom

Click on the link to read Tips for Teachers Preparing for the First Day of School

Click on the link to read Would You Ever Want to Visit Your Old High School?

Click on the link to read Middle School Student Bought Teacher Thong Underwear as a Gift by Accident


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