‘I’m Not Thick!’: The Problem with Differentiation

In my NQT year when I began teaching in a PRU, I spent hours every night preparing differentiated lesson plans.


Providing different tasks for students of different ability is firmly embedded in PGCE and teach first training.

However, after a few weeks I realised that this was not only a waste of time but it was actually damaging my students.

In a large class of 30 students it works fine. Lots of students are working on different problems and some are obviously easier, but there’s several kids in the same boat.

They feel OK because at least some of their mates are doing the same as them.

In mainstream schools, setting by ability is also used to combat the problem of differentiation. However I believe this only limits the mindsets of students, leading to poor morale in both lower and higher sets.

However, in a class of just 3 students differentiation by task doesn’t work.

Recently I presented one student with lower level maths and he shouted ‘I’m not thick!’ tore up the sheet and stormed out.

This disrupted the others and the lesson ended in disaster.

After insulting and humiliating him like this, it’s no surprise it took me a long time to rebuild the relationship. But this is standard practice expected of a teacher aiming for outstanding.

It’s quite a conundrum. To teach effectively students need to be learning at their own level. But to highlight their differences is humiliating, especially for students who have low self esteem anyway.

One successful solution is to give students the same work but have them start in a different place. That way nobody gets embarrassed.

But the best solution is group work and peer to peer learning.

I’ve already spoken about Jo Boalers excellent book ‘The Elephant in the Classroom‘. She has conducted a limited but longitudinal study of group work vs individual differentiated work.

The evidence is essentially anecdotal but it’s still compelling. Students who were taught via group work not only felt better about maths but also achieved higher grades on average.

Open ended, multifaceted problems allow students to work on the parts they are good at. More able students can help the less able.


There are lots of ways to approach this problem.

Some students are practical and want to start measuring sides to form 4 equations. Others realise that they can equate opposite sides to form 2 equations. Others want to multiply sides together to find the area and a relationship between x and y.

It has multiple levels that can be accessed with different styles of learning. When students find different answers they can share them and argue over whose answer is best.

Is it best to have an answer that’s more neat or more interesting? More practical or more abstract? This kind of discussion looks great when being observed.

I now regularly encourage my more able students to stand up in front of the class and teach.

This helps with confidence, communication and presentation skills. The more able are given opportunity to fine tune their knowledge and identify any gaps. The less able get a second perspective on the topic from a different voice in the classroom.

None of this is new and is occasionally used in mainstream schools. However, it is now clear to me that this is the only effective strategy for differentiation in small groups.

The student that I humiliated can now do maths which is at his level and feel good about himself.

P.S. answer to the problem x=6, y=2 is the neatest solution.


4 thoughts on “‘I’m Not Thick!’: The Problem with Differentiation

  1. Differentiation by task – it is always a bad idea, it just sets lower standards for one group of students, in the same way that setting does. As you say, I think group work helps.

    I also think it is worth using the approach: “Here is the work, start here if you are very confident, start here if you are feeling OK about the topic, and start here if you are really unsure” – it puts some choice in the students’ hands. Or simply have everyone do the same work, or at least start at the same point, let them skip a section when they are bored, and have extension material ready.

  2. Pingback: Setting vs. Mixed Ability | jackteacher88's Blog

  3. Pingback: Teachling | Mixed-ability classes: How do we teach when the kids are all so different?

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