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Differentiation in education increases likelihood of inequality

School pupils are all different, which is why there is differentiation in our education system. This can be seen in pre-university education and lower vocational schools, and also takes the form of ability groups in junior schools. But according to Professor by Special Appointment Eddie Denessen, differentiation can increase inequality of opportunity. Inaugural lecture 26 June.

Not all school pupils learn equally quickly or easily. Besides this, there are also differences in what children learn at home, what they do outside school and whether or not they like school. Teachers and schools have to support all these different pupils in their learning and make sure that the they provide teaching is meaningful for all of them. ‘The current thinking is that a classical approach isn't necessarily the best,' says Eddie Denessen, professor by special appointment in Socio-Cultural Backgrounds and Differentiation in Education. 'Classical teaching methods do not meet the needs of pupils who have difficulty with the lesson material nor of those who need their schoolwork to be more challenging.’

Levels of differentiation

This is why our education system is based on differentiation. Denessen explains: 'At macro-level we differentiate between different types of schools, such as pre-university and lower vocational schools, and at meso-level it is a matter of differences between classes, such as with a dual-language bridge class, for example. And at micro-level it means dividing the pupils in the class into ability groups.' Differentiation is regarded as a solution for handling the differences between pupils. However, Denessen also sees some disadvantages. 'Differentiation can sometimes make the differences in education even bigger.'

Increasing advantage

‘Macro- and meso-differentiation lead to even greater disparity of opportunity,' is Denessen's message in his inaugural lecture. And in the Netherlands there is a strong link between the parents' education and their children's school career. Children of highly educated parents are over-represented in pre-university schools, and at lower technical schools there are far more pupils whose parents are less well educated. In Scandinavian countries, on the other hand, where selection takes place at a later age, the differences are smaller. More children of highly educated parents are in dual-language education. 'These types of differentiation apparently work in favour of the opportunities for children who already  start their education with an advantage.' 

Talent or equal chances?

Teachers have an important role in differentiation in the classroom. 'But teachers are caught between two opposing policy initiatives of the government,' Denessen says. In 2014 the Top Talent Action Plan was presented by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and in 2016 the same Ministry published the Equal Opportunities in Education Action Plan. These two plans contradict one another, according to Denessen. Encouraging top talents means that all school pupils should have the best opportunities to develop their talents to the full. At the same time, in order to promote equal opportunities, pupils whose parents have a lower level of education should be given extra support to develop their talents. 'In practice, that faces teachers with a dilemma: do they give equal attention to each pupil, so that they can make the most of their talents, or do they focus more attention on pupils from lower social groups than on pupils from higher social groups, so that children of the same ability get the same opportunities?'  

Unconscioius expectations

There's another aspect that comes into play with differentiation by the teacher.'We know from research that teachers themselves sometimes differentiate between pupils; often it's intuitive and they're not aware they're doing it. Teachers' expectations also have an effect on children's performance.' Denessen and his colleagues at Radboud University discovered, for example, that teachers' ethnic prejudices coincide with the performance gap in class between children with a Turkish or Moroccan background and children with a Dutch background. They saw the same effect with teachers who had a negative attitude towards dyslexia. 'Even unconscious differentiation can contribute to larger or smaller differences between pupils. But we do have to bear in mind that there's a lot of variation between teachers. Some teachers are more strongly influenced by a pupil's socio-cultural background, while others are completely unaffected by such considerations.'

Reassessment of education system

Dinessen wants to develop practical programmes for teachers and schools, and gain more insight into the social effects of differentiation. He hopes to help schools and teachers develop a vision on how to handle differences and equal opportunities in education. ‘Our education system needs a critical reassessment so that it can truly contribute to equal opportunities for all children.'  

Eddie Denessen is professor by special appointment in Socio-cultural Backgrounds and Differentiation in Education, at the Institute of Education and Child Studies at Leiden University. This chair was installed by Sardes, a research and consultancy agency that focuses on increasing the developmental oportunities for children and young people. Beside this professorship in Leiden, Denessen is also a senior lecturer in  didactics at Radboud University in Nijmegen.

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