Contested Knowledge: A Critical Review of the Concept of Differentiation in Teaching and Learning


  • Sasha Carine Taylor Woodrush High School University of Worcester


Differentiation, Gender, Social class, Culture, Education, Attainment


This paper explores the concept of differentiation in teaching and learning. It argues that theoretical perspectives, policies, frameworks and the implementation of ideas relating to the technique have become conflated, because of the contested nature of the term. This has led to increased inequality in the classroom, which is the opposite result of its intended purpose. The unevenness of differentiation is most apparent in attempts to improve the attainment of individual students and tailoring the curriculum to meet their needs. Even though differentiation appears to be a successful framework on the surface level, with deeper analysis, it is rather difficult to quantify the real benefits, as non-school factors such as the influence of culture, socio-economic background, gender, ability/disability, language and social class have an effect on the outcome of learners’ educational achievement. Consideration of factors such as these on individual students could provide greater insights and help schools build a platform for more inclusive differentiated learning. This paper suggests that, for differentiation to be successful, teachers should make accommodation for learners’ varied levels, needs and backgrounds. Moreover, this paper highlights the need for more research-led strategies aimed at closing the attainment gap among learners, particularly where differentiation fails to challenge existing learning paradigms.


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biography

Sasha Carine Taylor, Woodrush High School University of Worcester

Teacher of Business Studies and ICT


Anctile, E., and Ashe, J., Higher Education Report. 2008, Vol. 34 Issue 2, p49-88. Last accessed 1st August 2016 at:

Aldridge, J., (2009) ‘Among the Periodicals: Gender and Education’, Childhood Education, 86 (1), pp. 59-61, doi: 10.1080/00094056.2009.10523114

Bakker, J., Denessen, E., and Brus‐Laeven, M., (2007) ‘Socio‐economic background, parental involvement and teacher perceptions of these in relation to pupil achievement’, Educational Studies, 33 (2), pp.177-192, doi:10.1080/03055690601068345

Barthorpe, T., and Visser, J., (1991) Differentiation: Your Responsibility. Stafford: Nare

Biemmi, I., (2015) ‘Gender in schools and culture: taking stock of education in Italy’, Gender and Education, 27(7), pp. 812-827, doi: 10.1080/09540253.2015.1103841

Brighton, C. M., Hertberg, H. L., Moon, T. R., Tomlinson, C, A., and Callahan C. M., (2005) ‘The Feasibility of High-end Learning in a Diverse Middle School’, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. Available at: (Accessed: 8 August 2016)

Berggren, C., (2008) ‘Horizontal and Vertical Differentiation within Higher Education – Gender and Class Perspectives’, Higher Education Quarterly, 62 (1/2), pp. 20-39, doi:

Considine, G., and Zappalà, G., (2002) The influence of social and economic disadvantage in the academic performance of school students in Australia, The Australian Sociological Association, 38 (2), pp 129–148

Daniels, H., and Hedegaard, M., (2011) Vygotsky and special needs education: rethinking support for children and schools. London: Continuum International

Department of Education (2011) Teachers’ Standard. Available at: (Accessed 1 August 2016)

Dudley, P., (2013) ‘Teacher learning in Lesson Study: What interaction-level discourse analysis revealed about how teachers utilised imagination, tacit knowledge of teaching and fresh evidence of pupils learning, to develop practice knowledge and so enhance their pupils’ learning’, Teaching and Teacher Education 34 (..), pp 1-15 doi: 10.1016/j.tate.2013.04.006

Elliotta, J.G., Stemlerb, S.E., Sternbergc, R.J., Grigorenkod, E.L., and Hoffmanb, N., (2011) ‘The socially skilled teacher and the development of tacit knowledge’, British Educational Research Journal, 37 (1), pp83-103 doi: 10.1080/01411920903420016

Eraut, M., (2000) ‘Non-formal learning and tacit knowledge in professional work’, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 70 (1), pp. 113–136 doi: 10.1348/000709900158001

Geelan, D., Christie, P., Mills, M., Keddie, A., Renshaw, P., and Monk, S., (2015) ‘Lessons from Alison: a narrative study of differentiation in classroom teaching’, International Journal of Pedagogies and Learning, 10 (1), pp.13-23, doi: 10.1080/22040552.2015.1084673

Gentry, O., and Owen, S., (1999) ‘An Investigation of the Effects of Total School Flexible Cluster Grouping on Identification, Achievement, and Classroom Practices’, Gifted Child Quarterly, 43 (4), pp. 1-20, doi:

Haelermans, C., Ghysels, J., and Prince, F., (2015) ‘Increasing performance by differentiated teaching? Experimental evidence of the student benefits of digital differentiation’, British Journal of Educational Technology, 46 (6), pp. 1161–1174, doi: 10.1111/bjet.12209

Hatcher, R., (1998) ‘Class Differentiation in Education: rational choices?’ British Journal of Sociology of Education, 19 (1), pp. 5-24, doi: 10.1080/0142569980190101

Hertberg-Davis, H., (2009) ‘Myth 7: Differentiation in the Regular Classroom Is Equivalent to Gifted Programs and Is Sufficient Classroom Teachers Have the Time, the Skill, and the Will to Differentiate Adequately’ Gifted Child Quarterly, 53 (4), pp. 251-253, doi: 10.1177/0016986209346927

Hertberg-Davis, H, L., and Brighton, C, M., (2006) ‘Support and Sabotage Principals’ Influence on Middle School Teachers’ Responses to Differentiation’, The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 17 (2), pp. 90 – 102, doi:

Hoover, J. J., and Patton J. R., (2004) ‘Differentiating Standards-Based Education for Students with Diverse Needs’, Remedial and Special Education, 25 (2), pp. 74 -78, doi:

Konstantinou-Katzi, P., Tsolaki, E., Meletiou-Mavrotheris, M., and Koutselini, M., (2013) ‘Differentiation of teaching and learning mathematics: an action research study in tertiary education’, International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 44 (3), pp. 332-349, doi: 10.1080/0020739X.2012.714491

Koutselini, M., (1997) ‘Contemporary trends and perspectives of the curricula: towards a meta-modern paradigm for curriculum’, Curriculum Studies, 5 (1), pp.87-101, doi: 10.1080/14681369700200005

Lawrence – Brown, D., (2004) ‘Differentiated instruction: inclusive strategies for standards-based learning that benefit the whole class’, American Secondary Education, 32 (3), pp. 34 – 62, doi:

Micklewright, J., (1989) ‘Choice at Sixteen’, Economica, 56 (221), pp. 25-39, doi:

Mariam Webster Dictionary (2016) Differentiation. Available at: (Accessed 5th August 2016)

McNamara, S., and Moreton, G., (1997) Understanding Differentiation: A Teachers Guide. London: David Fulton

Munro, J., (2012) Effective strategies for implementing differentiated instruction. Available at: (Accessed 20 August 2016)

Nonaka, I., and von Krogh, G., von Krogh (2009) ‘Tacit Knowledge and Knowledge Conversion: Controversy and Advancement in Organizational Knowledge Creation Theory’, Organization science, 20 (3) pp 635 – 652, doi: 10.1287/orsc.1080.0412

Neumeister, K.L., Adams, C. M., Pierce, R, L., Cassady, J, C., and Dixon, F, A., (2007) ‘Fourth-Grade Teachers’ Perceptions of Giftedness: Implications for Identifying and Serving Diverse Gifted Students’ Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 30 (4) pp. 479–499, doi:

Peter, M., (1992) Differentiation: Ways Forward. Stafford: National Association for Special Educational Needs

Petty, G., (2004) Differentiation – What and How. Available at: (Accessed 31 July 2016)

Rogers, C., (2007) ‘Experiencing an ‘inclusive’ education: parents and their children with ‘special educational needs’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 28 (1), pp. 55-68, doi: 10.1080/01425690600996659

Schilhab T., (2007) Knowledge for Real: On implicit and explicit

representations and education, Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 51:3, 223-238, DOI: 10.1080/00313830701356034

Singh, I., (2008) ADHD, culture and education, Early Child Development and Care, 178 (4), pp. 347-361, doi: 10.1080/03004430701321555

Strand, S., (2010) ‘Do some schools narrow the gap? Differential school effectiveness by ethnicity, gender, poverty, and prior achievement’, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 21(3), pp. 289-314, doi: 10.1080/09243451003732651

Terwel, J., (2005) ‘Curriculum differentiation: multiple perspectives and developments in education’ Journal of Curriculum Studies, 37 (6), pp. 653-670, doi: 10.1080/00220270500231850

Thomsen, J. P., (2012) ‘Exploring the heterogeneity of class in higher education: social and cultural differentiation in Danish university programmes’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 33 (4), pp. 565-585, doi: 10.1080/01425692.2012.659458

Tomlinson, Carol Ann (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction In Mixed-Ability Classrooms. 2nd edn. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Toom, A., (2012) ‘Considering the Artistry and Epistemology of Tacit Knowledge and Knowing’, Educational Theory, 62 (6), pp621 – 640, doi: 10.1111/edth.12001

Valiande, S., Kyriakides, L., and Koutselini, M., (2011) Investigating the Impact of Differentiated Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms: It’s impact on the Quality and Equity Dimensions of Education Effectiveness. Available at: (Accessed 20 August 2016)

van der Berg, S., Wood, L., and le Roux, N., (2002) ‘Differentiation in black education’, Development Southern Africa, 19 (2), pp. 289-306, doi: 10.1080/03768350220132495

vanTassel-Baska, J., (2012) ‘Analyzing Differentiation in the Classroom Using the COS-R’, Gifted Child Today, 35 (1), pp. 42-48, doi: 10.1177/1076217511427431.

Vickerman, P., (2009) Differentiation - guidance for inclusive teaching. Available at: (Accessed 1 August 2016)

Virtanen, S., Ra¨ikko¨nen, E., and Ikonen, P., (2015) ‘Gender-based motivational differences in technology education’, Int J Technol Des Educ, 25, pp. 197–211, doi: 10.1007/s10798-014-9278-8

Weber, C. L., Johnson, L., and Tripp, S., (2013) ‘Implementing Differentiation: A School’s Journey’, Gifted Child Today, 36 (3) pp. 175 -186, doi: 10.1177/1076217513486646.

West, J, A., and West, C, K., (2016) ‘Integrating Differentiation in English Education Methods Courses: Learning from the Perceptions and Experiences of Teacher Candidates’, The Teacher Educator, 51 (2), 115-135, doi: 10.1080/08878730.2016.1151091

Westwood, P., (2013) Inclusive and Adaptive Teaching. London: Routledge

Wu, E, H., (2013) ‘The Path Leading to Differentiation: An Interview With Carol Tomlinson’, Journal of Advanced Academics, 24 (2), pp. 125–133, doi: 10.1177/1932202X13483472