Dr Jill Colton, Program Director of the Bachelor of Secondary Education (Honours) at the University of South Australia, discusses the concepts of differentiation and learner agency in the context of ‘super-diversity’ in secondary schools.
Secondary schools are incredibly diverse places. They reflect the ‘super-diversity’ we see in the wider community, and they are also places of belonging and learning. This means that secondary schools are constantly challenged to respond to the young people who gather in their spaces. One way in which schools can respond to students is through a differentiated approach. This is an approach that is responsive to students.
The challenge for secondary schools is to create opportunities for the young people in their communities while also meeting the goals of the curriculum frameworks which delineate standards of achievement. This challenge becomes trickier as students move into the senior school where possibilities for differentiation can be diminished by assessment requirements. How can we respond to the different knowledges, dispositions, aspirations, and interests of students while meeting our qualification obligations?
Teachers in secondary schools are well aware of the obligations they have to guide students to meet assessment requirements and achieve qualifications. They work to create opportunities for students to participate in the curriculum by knowing who their students are. This is the core of differentiation. Differentiation implies the application of deep knowledge of curriculum to generate opportunities for individual students within a community.
I have recently been working with teachers at a secondary school in Adelaide to explore ways of differentiating to enable students to engage, participate and succeed. These educators knew a lot about differentiation. And they knew a lot about their students. When I asked them to identify what they saw as the conditions in which differentiation could flourish, they were unequivocal about the primacy of trust and relationships. Secondary school teachers know that these things are key. They spoke about the importance of knowing their students – not only through the data they collect, but also as embodied, feeling human beings with complex lives and personal narratives within and beyond school. It was evident that for these teachers, relationality was a powerful aspect of their philosophy of differentiation.
These educators also knew that things like access to resources, supportive environments, and flexible options were important conditions for differentiation to be possible. The task is not easy. This takes time and a positive mindset – time to design curriculum that all students can engage with and willingness to listen and respond.
The concept of differentiation has resonance with some of the recent work around learner agency that has been evident in secondary schools over the last few years. Where learner agency and differentiation intersect is in the way that students understand themselves in relation to the knowledges and skills valued in the school and in the way that students articulate that understanding. Differentiation is enabled when students can express what they need and when teachers are able to listen to what they say. Agency is enabled in conditions of dialogue and negotiation. I recently heard about a school where students in the year 11 and 12 classes, having returned from home study provoked by the pandemic, asked for greater freedom to choose what they worked on during the school day. They found that they wanted to continue aspects of the self-directed learning they had experienced in that time. They wanted to negotiate their own deep dives into the content and meet with teachers for their expertise and guidance. This is agency and also differentiation.
Like differentiation, learner agency is generated in the relationships between teachers and students, curriculum and pedagogy, assessment and learning.
Teachers play a crucial role in making those relationships meaningful. One of the best examples I have seen in recent years was when I visited a pre-service teacher on practicum in a year 11 English class. She had visited the school several times before the placement commenced and during these ‘lead-in’ days she had observed an incident on the oval which had affected many students. This incident and the events that surrounded it became a provocation for her curriculum design. She drew on the students’ experiences to explore and analyse an aspect of language that she knew was relevant and indeed significant in their lives. I noted, when I observed this teacher, how beautifully she created opportunities for each student in that class to participate in the discussions with her and with others and to access the assessment task in ways that were enabling and meaningful for them. It was a great example of belonging and learning in a ‘super-diverse’ class.
This article was originally published in Education Matters Secondary Magazine – to read the issue download it here.