Does it make sense to teach the same to all students? Instruction differentiated by skills under examination


In general, differentiated education is understood to be the homogeneous grouping by sex. The differentiation, in this case, is based on the belief that teaching boys and girls separately makes it possible to better meet the needs of each sex. It is about taking into account the different maturation rates, learning forms or different sensitivities in one and the other and individually adapting the teaching-learning process.

But in recent years, the term differentiated education has also been used to refer to grouping based on the capacities of the students. Differentiated education entails a personalized education, but both terms are not synonymous since the organization in heterogeneous groups does not exclude the personalization of the teaching process.

The defenders of the education differentiated by sex point out its benefits, mainly, for the girls. According to a study by the Sudikoff Institute (UCLA) , there is a greater interest in participation in socio-political environments, greater confidence in handling skills related to mathematics or greater interest in engineering careers.

In the case of skills-differentiated education, research offers contradictory results.

Conflicting evidence

Some of the evidence supports the logic of grouping students by ability, but there appear to be negative effects for low ability students, and medium and high ability groups would gain no advantage .

However, other studies have shown that grouping students by levels of readiness led to improvements in academic achievement for low-achieving students and in understanding mathematics for high-achieving students.

When these homogeneous groupings produce advantages, they are due to the fact that they allow teachers to better address the individual needs of the students, especially if we refer to students with high abilities.

In general, the few studies show that homogeneous groupings of students alone do not seem to obtain great benefits, and should be a practice that takes place in a broader, more varied and rich educational context. That is, combining different methodologies, a variety of resources and evaluation procedures, using the natural and social context itself as a learning space, among others.

A minority practice

In Spain, differentiated education understood as a homogeneous grouping is a very minority, both in one and the other case, and it is not known exactly how many schools carry out this type of grouping, although it can be assumed that they are located in large cities.

There are also no studies in the Spanish context on the advantages of promoting one or the other model and it is difficult to transfer the advantages that have been analyzed in the Anglo-Saxon context to our context, which has substantial socioeconomic and cultural differences.

Therefore, it seems necessary to carry out a rigorous investigation to determine the advantages of these groupings in the academic performance of students. Decision-making must be based on evidence, and not on the possible negative consequences, especially in the long term, of these practices.

Inclusion and differentiation

Several European education systems are moving towards greater inclusion, which inevitably leads to greater differentiation within the classroom. It is recommended to move towards a concept of “differentiated instruction”, which is based on the idea that students are inherently different. That is, organizing educational practices in heterogeneous groups, but offering students personalized responses based on their individual characteristics.

Therefore, a differentiated instruction entails designing educational practices taking into account the differences of the students, their interests, motivations and abilities so that each one is involved according to their abilities.

Differentiated instruction assumes:

  1. Work in homogeneous and heterogeneous groups depending on the didactic objective that is set.
  2. Use materials and resources that eliminate possible barriers and that allow maximum communicative interaction between all students and of these with teachers.
  3. Offer less complex tiered activities or additional supports to students who are performing at lower levels and offer more complex alternatives to those with a faster rate of learning.
  4. Design tasks that allow the functionality of learning and participation in group dynamics based on the abilities of the students, etc.

None of this excludes the support of specific technical aids for students who need them or work in homogeneous groups based on educational criteria.

Author Bio: Margarita R. Pino Juste is Professor of Didactics and School Organization at the University of Vigo