Highcliffe Learning Hub

Masters - Differentiation

Assignment 1 – A critical analysis of research methodologies.


In order to carry out research into finding effective differentiation and challenge strategies, that are both easy to implement and which work for our students and teachers at Highcliffe school, it was first vital to look at the most reliable way to carry out research.
One part of this was achieved by completing Assignment 1. Assignment 1 focussed on finding and critiquing the different methodologies used in educational research.  In order to do this I looked at 3 key pieces of research within the broad topic of differentiation strategies.  It made the most sense starting with the broadest sense of differentiation we use at Highcliffe which is to use ability grouping.  

One of the most cited articles on this topic was one by Ireson, Hallam and Hurley (2004).  Therefore, the poster portion of Assignment 1 investigated their approaches to researching the effects of ability grouping on GCSE attainment and casting a critical eye over the methods they used compared to the findings they reported.   In order to be critical and assess the reliability of the authors findings and methods I had to draw on the research carried out in two other seminal articles in the same field of ability grouping within schools to compare the methodologies and findings. The poster therefore aims to summarise what Ireson, Hallam and Hurley (2004) were aiming to find out, how they carried out their research and their findings, as well as giving a glimpse into the strengths and limitations of their research methodologies compared to similar pieces.   

This was investigated and reported further within the accompanying 3000 word essay that was simultaneously written and submitted.


The effectiveness of ability setting is a contentious topic with inconsistencies in the findings of research both in the UK and in the USA.   Gamoran and Mare (1989) found there was higher achievement for students in tracking schools. Whereas, Hoffer (1992) and Argys et al. (1996) found high track students benefitted but ability setting was detrimental to the lower sets.   This was confirmed by studies in the UK which found that the lower ability students made less progress when in streams (Lacey, 1974).  However, Fogelman et al. (1978) found no significant different in the attainment of students from schools with predominantly mixed classes or those from ability setting. Furthermore, the government funded Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) found that setting benefits the high ability students but is detrimental to both the middle and low ability students (Wintour, 2014).  

The research I carried out explored the different methodologies used within three articles in the field of differentiation within educational research in order to determine which would be the most reliable to use in practice.  Each article investigates how setting affects students.  Wiliam and Bartholomew (2004) and Ireson et al. (2005) look at the effect setting has on attainment. Whereas, Boaler et al. (2000) explores the impact setting has on student attitudes towards and their learning of Mathematics. All three articles are from peer reviewed journals increasing credibility. The primary focus of this paper was to critique the reliability and validity of the methodologies used by the researchers and the transferability of their findings to other schools. 

Firstly, I looked at the aims and paradigms in which the three articles originate, the methodologies were then analysed against different ideas about what it means for research to be valid and reliable and by the end of assignment 1 I was able to draw some conclusions about the appropriateness of some methodologies for use within practice. This will allow me to critically evaluate current research and decide what methodologies yield reliable findings and which should be avoided when carrying out my own research.

What I learnt:

📖    Reliability within educational research means that results remain consistent over time and that they are an accurate representation of the remaining population (Joppe, 2000 cited in Golafshani, 2003).  However, Golafshani (2003) argues that reliability has different meanings within the different paradigms and therefore in order to determine whether the findings are reliable the method and paradigm must be considered.  

📖    Validity is determined by whether the research measures what it is meant to measure or how truthful findings are (Joppe, 2000 cited in Golafshani, 2003).

📖    This meant that when carrying out my research I would have to put my very traditional scientific mind aside in order to carry out research within education, there are just too many variables! 

Assignment 2 – Teachers’ perceptions of the effectiveness of differentiation strategies identified to be successful from a literature review