The Differentiation Charm - Writing about Teaching and Learning
"Or yet in wise old Ravenclaw, if you've a ready mind, where those of wit and learning, will always find their kind."
So said The Sorting Hat in book number one, where we find Harry entering the Great Hall for the very first time. In its song, the Sorting Hat has a lot to say about the different houses and the qualities their respective students display. Putting aside, for a second, the fact that students are being pigeon-holed at the drop of a hat (pun not excused), perhaps students in Ravenclaw are naturally more academically able than their Gryffindor counterparts. Indeed, maybe the “patient” Hufflepuffs who are “unafraid of toil” will be more likely to complete all their classwork than the cunning folk of Slytherin.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that all these students – irrespective of which house they belong to – will sit the same exams at Hogwarts and will attend the same lessons at Hogwarts. Which then begs the question: how can they all be taught equally and have their individual needs met, if they display such different personality traits and levels of academic ability? The answer, quite conveniently, is the subject of this post.
My personal favourite definition of differentiation in teaching and learning is:
“Differentiation is the process by which differences between learners are accommodated so that all students in a group have the best possible chance of learning ”
Removing the jargon, differentiation is simply the combination of strategies a teacher will use to ensure that all learners in their class make good progress. At this point, I think it’s best to relate this definition to a classroom scenario. So, please pick up your wand, because we’re off to our first Charms lesson!
Wingardium Leviosa: an approach to differentiation in the classroom
The Learning Objective – To be able to carry out a simple levitating charm
When Professor Flitwick tries teaching the first years about simple levitation charms, it is immediately clear that there is a wide range of ability in his class. After demonstrating the charm himself (modelling the activity for his students), he sets them to work to replicate the effects of the charm for themselves.
Without naming names, there are some students who manage the task straight away, there are some students who struggle for a while before finally having that ‘light-bulb’ moment, and there are some students who find it so difficult that they may as well be trying to complete the task with an ordinary twig instead of a wand.
To identify the problem, we might attempt to analyse how each of these three types of student are feeling:
1. Students who achieve the task straight away may find a small, fleeting sense of achievement in having achieved the intended learning objective, but ultimately these students will quickly become bored, demotivated and disengaged with the lesson. Put simply, they are not being stretched to their full potential.
2. Students who initially struggle and have to work to complete the task are the ‘ideal’ group in this scenario. They are not overwhelmed, yet nor are they patronised. The reasonable level of challenge of the exercise promotes deep learning and a meaningful
sense of achievement when they complete the task set.
3. Those students who find the activity so difficult that it is unattainable are perhaps the most at-risk of not making good progress. They are in desperate need of additional support, without which they will become disinterested and likely disruptive in the classroom (exhibit A – the pile of ash that used to be a perfectly good feather. I’m looking at you, Mr Finnigan …).
Hopefully, the problem is now clear; these students are all making very different levels of progress in this lesson. If our success criterion for this task is “I can levitate a feather,” then we have one group of students who have achieved but could have attained much more, one group of students who have met the criterion satisfactorily and one group of students who may as well have not been in the classroom.
Sorry, Filius – it’s not looking good, is it?
How then, could this activity have been carried out differently? Once again, we arrive back at the idea of differentiation. With a few simple tweaks, I think our first years could be charming their way to an ‘O’ in no time .
I’d like to clarify something at this point. The suggestions from here on out are exactly that – suggestions. They are not the only way to differentiate the task, nor are they the ‘best’ way to differentiate the task. They are simply ideas to help illustrate the concept of differentiation in a context we can relate to.
Let me start off by pointing out that good ol’ Professor Flitwick demonstrates excellent practice by first modelling the charm to his students. This might seem like common sense but modelling a task before asking students to do it is a useful strategy that can be overlooked by even the most experienced of teachers on occasion. It allows clear demonstration of what the students need to do and is the starting point for them to refer to as they work through the task they have been set.
When the students begin attempting the charm for themselves, the differentiation could come into play. Referring back to our three types of student, the activity could have been structured as follows:
1. Students who are confident could attempt to levitate an entire bird, rather than just a feather. The type of bird is irrelevant, but I like to think a peacock would have the most enjoyable results.
2. Students who feel reasonably challenged will attempt to levitate the feather, as demonstrated by the classroom teacher.
3. Students who are less confident and finding the task too challenging might be given a ‘help-sheet’ in the form of a page from the textbook which has detailed diagrams of the wand-movements.
The most crucial point about this new structure is that it introduces three layers of challenge into the original activity, without compromising the learning objective. At the end of the lesson, all students should have been “… able to carry out a simple levitating charm.” This is the fundamental crux of differentiation – not to have differentiated learning objectives, but to have differentiated levels of support to allow all students to achieve the learning objective.
Of course, there are other ways that this activity might have been differentiated. For example, Professor Flitwick might have decided to pair up the more able students with the less able students to act as ‘student teachers’. This essentially gives those who are finding the task challenging a means of support through their peers, whilst allowing the more able in the class a chance to develop their learning by relaying what they have learned to somebody else.
Like all methods of differentiation (and indeed, all classroom practice in general) there are pros and cons to the different activities and the way in which they are structured. The overarching point is that the activities have been thought about in such a way that they allow more of the class to make more progress. And that’s something magical.
 For those of you who are not overly familiar with the Harry Potter series, it is a ‘Gove-less’ paradise where grades are still letters, rather than numbers. An ‘O’ stands for ‘Outstanding,’ the highest awardable grade.