Differentiation or Aged Based Curriculum: Which is Best?

differentiation or aged based curriculumAre schools really ‘differentiated’ from each other or are they just holding children back to conform with an aged based curriculum?

Differentiation as a term in school education is not new but Head Teacher and commentator Denice Scala says that while the system claims to allow schools to differentiate, all too often the systems within schools drive the curriculum and that the aged based model of schooling is obsolete and detrimental to learning.

The Chinese have a saying “What is more important, breathing in or breathing out?” Both of course but there appears to be an  ‘either or’ syndrome in education that pushes  educational change in a perilous direction. Why shouldn’t students be able to learn at their own pace? Why shouldn’t the curriculum be versatile enough to cater for the variance in students’ needs? Why shouldn’t they be able to combine academic subjects with specialist interest subjects?

Teaching the same concepts in exactly the same way to all students is no longer an option but neither is teaching everything to every student in a different way.  The economics of scale in schools does not allow for such a privilege.    In the search for ways to differentiate, we are losing the way.   Differentiated learning, as a construct for organising schools,is not a fancy term for individualisation. It is a concept, ahead of its time and ahead of the structures that exist in schools to make it happen. It is not impossible.

Every child has the right to be presented with a curriculum they can access. The commitment to meeting individual students at their point of need amplifies a respect for all, and celebrates  diversity. A differentiated school has a tolerance for ambiguity that prepares students for a world of change.  It pivots, not on the egocentric but on  every educator’s desire to see each child succeed, arguably the vehicle for universal access to educational rights.

Differentiation is not new.  

Differentiation is about knowing children and matching  a curriculum to their needs. It  is about knowing what matters to teach, realising that learning happens in us rather than to us and  presents the opportunity for educators to focus attention on the quality and character of the school curriculum.

All too often the structures and systems within schools drive the curriculum rather than vice-versa.   The industrial model of schooling is obsolete as we prepare students for a world of multiple jobs and life long learning.  Old fashioned approaches place a straightjacket around students’ learning by insisting on using chronological age as the guide for developmental levels of curriculum and examinations.  Lock-step, rigid age –based progression in schools  limits potential especially if it prevents students from accessing a like minded peer group.  A differentiated school thinks in terms of flexible structures and developmentally appropriate curriculum.

The current educational model preferred by governments where there is uniformity of standards may provide a  safe and familiar framework but it is at the expense of the entrepreneurship  and creativity needed in today’s world.  If we decentred education to take account of both students’ points of view and that of the culture to which they belonged then we would design curriculum and structures differently..

The key to differentiation is the curriculum.  It should be challenging by posing big questions, seeking answers to problems that truly matter, exploring new material and going beyond the walls of the classroom. As educational leaders, the more our advocacy for differentiated learning is based on sound educational research, built on an understanding that students have rights, unique characteristics, are part of a diverse community and live in an ever evolving world then the more defensible the approach.

School leadership focussed on classroom practice  sees schools maximises the number of teachers who are experts in designing and delivering curriculum for all learners. Teachers in today’s context are learning and performance experts, tracking every child’s progress and adjusting how they teach accordingly.

Plato  said “What is honoured in a country is cultivated there.”  What is honoured in a school is cultivating the next generation.  Every time a parent questions the gap between their expectations and the outcomes for their child, we must listen. We now have the technology at our fingertips to bring the dream of a differentiated school to reality. Let’s reimagine schooling as a place where new knowledge is created by students who are engaged in learning curated by teachers who are experts in differentiation.


Denice Scala

I have been involved in education for over thirty years, twenty two years as a leader working internationally in both single sex and co-educational environments. My path to becoming a Principal was paved by others who recognized my leadership acumen long before I did and created opportunities for me. This is why I feel driven and compelled to nurture leadership talent, to work with others to help them realize their ambitions and to give back.

Working across primary and secondary schools in multiple roles, leading a large K-12 Learning Support Department and expertise with gifted students has taught me the importance of understanding every child and young person's story. We teach better by knowing more. Every child tells a story. Learning is our everyday work.

Latest posts by Denice Scala (see all)