Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Rethinking Differentiation-Using Teachers' Time Most Effectively

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Rethinking Differentiation-Using Teachers' Time Most Effectively

Article excerpt

Are we overemphasizing, overthinking, and overusing differentiation when a different approach can focus on learning, harness teacher teamwork, and reach all children without exhausting teachers?

It's an article of faith that teachers should differentiate their instruction--that is, teach in ways that meet their students' individual needs. Every teacher-evaluation rubric includes the idea, and administrators often look for differentiation when they visit classrooms. But what exactly are they looking for? Do they know good differentiation when they see it? And given the work involved in meeting the needs of 20 to 30 students, when has a teacher differentiated enough? Researchers haven't given much guidance on these questions, and there's plenty of confusion and misunderstanding in schools. Let's see if we can unpack this important issue.

For starters, what is the problem to which differentiation is the solution? Clearly it's the fact that students walk into school with a wide range of differences in prior knowledge, vocabulary, reading proficiency, fluency in English, attitudes toward school, mindset about learning, tolerance of frustration and failure, learningstyle preferences, special needs, and distracting things on their minds.

The differentiation challenge has been with us for some time--picture a one-room schoolhouse on the prairie with the teacher trying to meet the needs of students from age 6 to 16. With the advent of mass education, the trend has been toward more homogenous classrooms, with students sorted by age, by achievement, and by special needs. Nevertheless, most teachers today still face a wide range of student differences. Trying to keep a heterogeneous class on the same page--whether by lecturing, assigning the same 25 spelling words to all students, or having everyone read "Romeo and Juliet"--tends to be inefficient. All too often, higher-achieving students are bored and below-level students become increasingly frustrated. A teacher aiming for the middle is lucky if half the class achieves mastery, and as students move through the grades, achievement gaps of class, racial, and ethnic differences get wider.

From this perspective, differentiation would seem to be a moral imperative. Surely all teachers should assess students' individual needs and learning styles, customize instruction to those needs, and get students working at their Vygotsky sweet spot of difficulty. Carol Ann Tomlinson, the leading expert on the issue, puts it this way:

   Differentiation is effective attention to the learning needs of
   each student. The purpose of developing a differentiated classroom
   is to make sure there's opportunity and support for each student to
   learn essential knowledge and skills as effectively and efficiently
   as possible. The key is getting to know each student and
   orchestrating the learning environment, curriculum, assessments,
   and instruction so all students learn what's being taught (personal
   communication, 2016).

Tomlinson and others go a step further, suggesting that teachers should differentiate by content (what's being taught), by process (how it's taught), and by product (how students are asked to demonstrate their learning).

The critique

The goals of differentiation are laudable, but in recent years, serious questions have been raised about its practicality and efficacy, among them: Can a teacher really tailor instruction for 20 to 30 different students? Does trying to do so exhaust teachers, pushing some out of the profession? Might gearing the curriculum to students' current levels replicate tracking under a different name? Does differentiated instruction spoon-feed students, undermining self-reliance and initiative? Does differentiation balkanize classrooms, depriving students of group cohesion, collective experiences, and interaction with their peers? And finally, has research demonstrated that differentiation is effective? …

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