Differentiation: The Current Puzzle

For the past few weeks, a battle has been underway over whether or not differentiation is really a useful, effective tool in classrooms. What do you think? Is differentiation a worthwhile and effective strategy?

My sixth graders sat up a little straighter when they saw the pink sheets in my hand. One asked, “Are those our verb contracts?” As I handed the papers out, students began calling out to each other. Questions like “What was your score on the pretest?” and “What does it say you need to work on?” rang through the room.

For many students, grammar is boring and irrelevant. In my classroom, much of what we do with grammar is embedded in our writing and reading; however, I handle some of the basics by giving pretests and then assigning activities and reviews for each student’s specific needs. This form of differentiation has worked well for my students and me for several years.

So I was surprised to read Dr. Jim Delisle’s column in EdWeek entitled “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.” This column shared Dr. Delisle’s thoughts, along with supporting research, on why differentiation is NOT the cure for education’s woes.

I’ll admit—when I first read it, I found myself thinking, “Great. So what I’ve been encouraging and supporting colleagues in doing, as well as implementing myself, is really a waste of time and effort.”

But here’s the thing: it’s not.

Ideally, in theory, differentiation is an amazing tool with powerful potential. Teachers identify the needs of their students and then plan tasks and activities at varying levels to meet the needs of the wide range of students in their rooms, and help those students continue to learn and grow through these differentiated activities. This is the ideal.

However, the reality can be very different.

What Delisle was pointing out is that if we rely solely on differentiation to meet the needs of every single child, in every single classroom, we’re doomed to failure in this effort. And he’s exactly right. As Delisle notes, “Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.”

The reality is this: the spread of needs in general education classrooms is huge. Given the economic realities of the past eight or so years, most general education classrooms are larger, not smaller. Teachers know that in a class of 28, there is likely to be a huge range of skills, abilities, and needs. And it’s more challenging to implement strong differentiated lessons and activities for 28 or 30 kids than it is for 18 or 20.

Of course, most teachers are going to do their very best. That’s who we are. When kids need something, we do what we can to help meet that need—whether it’s adjusting or adapting classwork, or providing lunch money so they aren’t hungry all afternoon. We work hard.

Those of us who have been striving to routinely implement differentiated strategies in our general education classrooms probably know better than any of us that this approach is not the cure-all for education’s woes. It can be useful for certain students and certain lessons, but it is not a “magic bullet” in education.

My point is this: if we view differentiation as the one cure, the one “fix” that will allow all students to grow and achieve their maximum potential, we’re going to frustrate ourselves, our colleagues, and our students.

However, there are times and places when it’s effective and useful. Classroom teachers need to carefully consider their students, their students’ needs, the standards they’re working with, and how best to bring all that together. There is research that supports the use of differentiation and points to some very specific situations where it is most effective, such as this study about high-achieving third graders in low-achieving schools.

Resources and Supports:

There are resources and supports available to help teachers use differentiation as one of many strategies. And teachers don’t have to do all this on their own. In fact, a study by the National Research Center on Gifted and Talented points out that it takes a great deal of time, support, and the right kind of educational community to make differentiation happen in a diverse middle school. Teachers who are still working to use differentiation with high-ability students can find some good suggestions and strategies here.

One of my colleagues whose expertise includes strategies for teaching students with Asperger’s once told me, “Once you’ve met a child with Asperger’s, you’ve met a child with Asperger’s.” Just because a particular set of strategies works with one student doesn’t guarantee that set will work with another student.

That’s not true only of students who have an Asperger’s diagnosis—it’s true of all students. The strategies that work with one class and subject will not necessarily be as successful elsewhere. It takes time to set up differentiated activities and lessons, just as it takes time to get to know those students and their strengths and needs.

Solution?

Perhaps the solution isn’t to give up on differentiation. The solution may rest in how we structure our schools, classes, and teachers’ work days. Perhaps with some innovative new thinking, we can arrive at solutions that will make differentiation and other teaching strategies more powerful and effective for students and their teachers. What do your experiences show you about differentiation? What do we need to make differentiation better?

Note: “Solving Jigsaw Puzzle” by Yoel Ben-Avraham is licensed CC by 2.0

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