Differentiation as the Key...But is it Possible?

Differentiation as they Key....But is it Possible?


A recently published survey report in Science Magazine by Michael Kremer et al, entitled “The Challenge of Education and Learning in the Developing World (2013),” highlighted many of the recent RCT interventions focused on educational quality. In dissecting the findings, and more importantly, in taking a step back and surveying these studies in a broader view with their potential linkages and overlaps, some important themes emerged. One of the most significant threads is focused on students levels, teaching differentiation, and their impact on student outcomes.


Kremer writes, Providing additional inputs without changing pedagogy or governance has had limited impact, whereas adapting teaching methods to reach the varied learning levels in developing countries is highly effective” (299).  Non-teacher inputs, such as materials and libraries, so often focused on by international organizations, as they are tangible goods, are shown to be very inconsistent in improving learning outcomes. This connects with the commonly identified theme of government curricula and textbooks being often completely mismatched for the learning levels of students in government schools. Simply providing government mandated books will simply not help the vast majority of students. Textbook provision must be tailored to the level of the students. However, in weak states with limited capacity, as well as little to no initial assessments, what are the prospects of this need being answered?


I have written extensively regarding the localization of school curricula, with the goals being quite similar to this thread: matching the levels of instruction, design, and implementation with local realities. Decentralization of  the decision making process regarding what is appropriate for children, ultimately, to the classroom level. This is the ultimate, truly democratic principal that will be the way forward for children. However utopian, there are interventions which are aiming to do just this, albeit at a more measured pace.  Kremer continues, “In many developing countries, educational systems and curricula focus on children with the highest learning levels. Several different pedagogical strategies designed to match the level of instruction to the child’s level proved cost effective at improving learning…A computer assisted learning (CAL) program in India, which used math software that allowed children to learn at their own pace, increased scores…But there were no significant test score gains in Peru from the One Laptop Per Child program or a Columbian CAL program, potentially because the programs did not tailor instruction to each student’s level of knowledge…” (299)


However, the challenges remain: ICT is incredibly urban-centric, and normally serves to perpetuate inequalities in schooling systems, not dismantle them. Differentiation in low-resource classrooms, with teachers who have limited training and even more incentive to put in extra work to reach all students, is at best, a daunting task. More research will need to be specifically targeting to this question: how can teachers be incentivized to change pedagogy to support differentiation in low-resource, large class environments? Is this an answerable question?