Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Why the idea "Differentiation Doesn't Work" Doesn't Work

Ed Week published Differentiation Doesn't Work last week, which has shown up all over my Feedly and Facebook feed. Just the title itself is jarring and causes a double takes as it goes against so much of what we are being taught. The sentence that keeps getting quoted is, "It seems to me that the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals." 

I can imagine this would be a very popular thought. If true- if differentiation doesn't work and it's being shoved onto teachers by those who have never done it- then the game just changed. Teachers can be excused from the expectation of providing differentiation, and can actually be angry about being asked to do it. Not having to provide differentiation makes lives easier. 

Except I can't agree with this at all. 

 The biggest problem is that I don't agree with their definition of differentiation. They write:

• It (differentiation) seeks to determine what students already know and what they still need to learn.
• It allows students to demonstrate what they know through multiple methods.
• It encourages students and teachers to add depth and complexity to the learning/teaching process.

I'd agree with the first and third bullet. For the first, that's what I thought teaching was. If it isn't then I've been doing something wrong. If I don't know what the student knows and needs to know then I'm not sure how I am supposed to do my job. For the third bullet, sure, that's great. I'm not quite sure what they are saying there, but there is nothing wrong with depth and complexity as long as you are constantly going back to the first bullet. Is what you are doing working? Are the students learning? If not, then do you need to get more complex or less complex? What can you change?

The second bullet I believe is referring to learning styles, which have been proved time and time again to be a myth. However, it is hard to say they don't work. They do work, if only because the repetition used when teachers use them is often beneficial to students. They may be a waste of time because teachers could use a more effective method, but there is a reason we believed in them for so long. 

Taking out the learning styles, I believe that differentiation is teaching so that you are constantly adding growth to all students, taking them from wherever they are and moving them forward. Telling teachers that differentiation doesn't work is a dangerous slope.

1) It works. And it isn't that difficult. 
I've used differentiation time and time again in my classrooms. I never once thought it didn't work. I've always wondered why teachers felt it was so hard to implement. It doesn't have to be overly difficult or taxing. It's often a matter of asking thoughtfully tiered questions during focus lessons that drive home the different skills one wants to teach to each group. Or providing open-ended tasks that allow students to approach the assignment at their level. Making three types of similar worksheets- a reteach, a grade level, and a challenge- so that the students are all practicing what they need to practice. Teachers who set up their classrooms in the beginning of the year to provide structures that allow for differentiation will find that it comes seamlessly throughout the year.

2) Not differentiating is predetermining what students will do well and which will fail.
If schools don't differentiate, the alternative is to assign students to tiered classes based on their abilities. This is extremely unfair to the students, and sets us back in closing the achievement gap. Setting up classes based on abilities does not allow students to grow from one ability set to another. It limits the exposure the students in the "lower" groups have to higher level thinking tasks, and removes them from the peer models who are accessing these tasks. Schools will limit a student's ability and opportunities in life by boxing them in. Often a student's language level and socio-economic status will contribute to a student's current ability, but those background factors do not predict future ability. Given the right supports and opportunities students grow. Students meet our expectations. If we limit what we give our students and our expectations for them then we are limiting how high our students can succeed.

3) Students grow and change.
In my current school we are constantly grouping and regrouping our students based on their needs. The grade level team meets with the reading and math specialist every six weeks to look at every student's progress and re-assess the small groups. After being at the school for three years I have seen this be extremely powerful. The students are exposed to the same expectations regardless of their ability during whole group lessons, but are also provided small group instruction based on their current performance. This small group is only for six weeks where the student is given the targeted instruction he needs. After six weeks the student's needs are re-assessed. Students are constantly changing. Their educational growth has spikes, plateaus, and dips, and being flexible as a teacher allows us to meet the student's needs at any given time. Under this model I have watched student after student be exited from special education because of the growth they have made. Students labeled as having disabilities have proven that the disabilities do not impair their ability to work on grade level when they are given the instruction they need.

4) We've lost sight of the outcome.
What do we want from our schools? If we are working on passing tests and nothing more, then yes, putting students inside tracked classes that remain set are a good way to go. We can focus on test prep and learning material that will move students towards passing the tests to the best of their ability. This method forgets that we are looking at creating citizens who will one day run our country. We are not just prepping students to pass a test. We need to give our students every opportunity to succeed. Are we teaching all of our students to be problem solvers, capable of challenging themselves, overcoming obstacles, working independently and in groups, and being motivated learners? All of those skills can be taught in a differentiated classroom, along side the knowledge needed to pass tests.

Perhaps instead of throwing differentiation out the window we need to look at the support we are providing teachers to help them differentiate. Do they have the resources they need to make it work? Are we hiring quality teachers who see differentiation as valuable? Do teachers have time to build quality lessons and reflect with their colleagues on how to reach all their students?


Anonymous said...

From a former first grade teacher: I think that differentiation is necessary, and classroom set-ups usually permit it, in the primary grades. The real problem comes in the middle school and (even more so) the high school years. In that setting, where the learning gap between advanced and behind students may be as much as four years, and where students who haven't mastered fractions must be taught fractions as 10th graders before they can begin to learn Algebra, this arrangement breaks down.

Anonymous said...

My children suffered thru differentiated classrooms for years. There is a limit to the spread in skill levels that any teacher can be expected to cover. One of my children was in a classroom where there was a ten year spread in reading skills. At least one child barely read at a first grade level. Another tested at senior in high school. Neither child learned anything in that classroom.

Further, it is not any child's job to act as role model or teacher. If it was a job, they could quit it at any moment.

I have watched third graders who could add 1 and 5 without using their fingers stare in dismay as they teacher explained multiplication. A heteregenous classroom is a cruel place that serves neither the advanced or behind students.