The cost of peddling bad practice

During a recent Inspection, a friend of mine received a feedback email with the key themes that were being identified in lessons by Inspectors. One of the areas for development was that there were not enough lessons with differentiated learning objectives (i.e. all, most some). This information was relayed to all staff members and of course the message was clear; differentiate learning objectives in all sessions going forward. All due to the comments of an ill-informed inspector.


Aside from the fact that it has been made clear that Inspectors should not prescribe a particular style of teaching, let’s just focus on the problems with differentiated objectives. In summary they can:

  • Lower the bar for students, which in turn widens the achievement gap between the higher and lower ability.
  • Label students unnecessarily.
  • Result in a lack of clarity with the learning intentions.

I’m ashamed to admit that I was once an advocate of the differentiated learning objective. I would spend ages writing my lesson objectives as red, amber and green, and share them with students on a neatly presented handout which they would tick as they went through the session. On the surface this looked great – clear differentiation, learner autonomy and self-assessment. But actually if you probed a little, you would find I was probably doing more harm than good. Those learners with little self esteem/confidence would always attempt the lowest standard. Regardless of the topic, regardless of any other factor. Granted, in some cases, they were challenging themselves, but I suggest that in most they were not.


If we briefly examine Hattie’s (2009) work, the following has been suggested::

– Student control over learning has a negligible effect size (.04)

– Individualising instruction for learners has a low effect size (.22), particularly when thinking opportunity cost.

On the contrary, by not labelling students, there is a generally high effect size of .61. This is also corroborated by the work of Carol Dweck (2012) on Growth Mindset, where individuals can develop their abilities through hard work.


I’m not completely against setting personal targets or objectives in the sessions where they lend themselves to doing so. For example, where learners are working towards the completion of different things, using different skills (generally practical tasks i.e hairdressing). In your standard theory session, there really is no need in my opinion (though I am open to hearing counter arguments). Aim for the highest ability and support the others well – as previously discussed in my post on stretch and challenge.


In summary, it is clear that a small ill-informed comment by someone in a position of power can actually have massive ramifications on a whole institution, if not wider. Prescribing and favouring one method over another is wrong – particularly with no evidence base for it.


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