Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

In third grade, my daughter struggled with problems like 36 x 12, and she knew her multiplication facts. Fortunately, her math tutor recognized what was needed, and introduced the Lattice Method. My daughter rediscovered her confidence.

As educators, we know that learning is not one size fits all. Yet differentiated instruction (DI) remains elusive as a major part of formal planning. Myths about DI persist despite work by respected advocates such as Carol Tomlinson, Susan Allan, Rick Wormeli, and Gayle Gregory. What follows are prominent misperceptions expressed about DI, presented here so that we can separate myth from truth.

Myth #1: DI is a collection of strategies.

There are many books, workshops, and organizations offering "differentiated strategies" that, when used, will instantly have teachers differentiating for their students. Such strategies in isolation rarely have the intended outcome for most or all of the students. The reality is that any strategy can be differentiated if we know the learner's current skill level.

Truth #1: DI is a lens for implementing any strategy in all pedagogies.

Consider that effective teachers have a wealth of tools they use to meet student needs. DI is a lens for choosing the best tool. Would you use a screwdriver to hammer a nail? That seems obvious, yet there are many learning experiences where a diamond point screwdriver is used to tighten connections with a screw in need of a flat blade. Diagnosing students based on data helps teachers identify the best tools to design the appropriate learning experience. Some examples include:

DI is a lens that we can during the data analysis and planning process for great strategic impact on student learning. It ensures that we use the correct screwdriver.

Myth #2: DI is incompatible with standardized state testing.

High-stakes tests are pervasive in the fabric of school culture. Everything in education must go through the testing filter so that schools can report results to the wider community about how they're helping students do well. If these tests assess mastery of state and Common Core standards, then students need high-quality learning experiences that develop their understanding and application of these learning competencies. DI engages students on successful paths for mastering learning targets.

Truth #2: DI ensures that all students learn and grow in knowledge and application of state and Common Core standards.

Traditional classrooms take a whole-group instruction approach because it is a timesaver for lesson delivery. This timesaver is illusory. Without incorporating differentiation based on formatively assessed needs, students shut down as they believe they cannot succeed. As the knowledge or skills gap widens, the learning obstacle may turn into something too massive to overcome. If we know that not all students learn at the same pace and may not process skills and concepts in the same way, then differentiation is the solution to maximizing the number of students who can apply their understanding of standards on high-stakes tests. Pre-planned DI does not take significantly more time to teach a unit. DI uses existing time more effectively to meet needs of all learners. With more students mastering standards, teachers can address testing environment challenges.

Myth #3: There is no research that supports DI.

"No research" is a major misconception. It's frustrating to classroom teachers who see the results of differentiation with their own students to be told by "education experts" that there's no research supporting their efforts. DI transforms strategies and systems to meet the needs of varied learners.

Truth #3: Lots of research focuses on systems and strategies that differentiate to improve student learning.

Like Toto in The Wizard of Oz, if we remove the curtain from some effective learning systems and strategies, we find differentiation is part of the framework that fuels student success. Some examples include:

  1. Guided Reading: Fountas and Pinnell, and Anita Iaquinta's article in Early Childhood Education Journal.
  2. Response to Intervention: RTI Publications, and Susan Demirsky Allan and Yvonne L. Goddard's ASCD Article.

The focus of such research does not always include DI in the article titles, but the practice is embedded. Indeed, you can find DI infused within any program or system that collects data on student achievement or growth, evaluates and diagnoses what gaps or enrichments those students need, and then designs and implements a plan to meet those needs.

Look Through the Lens

Through just these few myths and truths, we can see that one-size instruction does not fit all. We also know that classroom education is more complex, full of competing initiatives which create myths that lure us away from our core purpose: students' learning needs. In this more complicated world, differentiated instruction is a critical lens to successful learning experiences.

(5)
Differentiated Instruction
When it comes to how students learn, one size does NOT fit all.

Comments (28)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Brian's picture

DI is not relegated to strategies and methods but best understanding the learner and the ways to meet their learning needs and ways. As we build the relationship with our students and understand them and the way they learn them we can determine the best strategies to use.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning
Blogger

Hi Brian,

We're in total agreement. DI depends on fostering good relationships, and also formative assessment to know where students are currently. What are some strategies that you use to develop relationships and diagnose needs?

MMurphinator's picture

I agree there are several factors to DI. The main one I see is knowing your student both personally and academically. Knowing the whole student will allow you to better help meet their interest and needs. It truly is powerful when you can combine both to make the concept meaningful and educational. I do feel that any teacher that puts the students first will unconsciously differentiate for them.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning
Blogger

Hi MMurphinator,
Well said about the importance of relationships mattering so much for student learning. Learning is far more effective when differentiation is intentional based on learning targets and formative assessment. That works well when, as you've pointed out, when knowing the whole student. What kind of strategies do you find best for building student relationships?

MMurphinator's picture

I teach kindergarten and at the beginning of every year I have the parents fill out a questionnaire about their child. I also have them take home an About Me Bag that we do a show and tell activity with. I use what I learned as a jumping board to begin conversation. Plus, it also helps me stay up to date on the new crazes that I have to research. I do not use any particular strategy but system instead. I divide my day into four parts and list students that I need to talk into a section. This helps me ensure I talk to all my students everyday. I am a big note taker, I also make it a point to write down any important information that I will need to revisit with the student. I just make it a point to reach every child every day. Those couple of minutes I set aside makes a big difference.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning
Blogger

AWEsome! Thanks for sharing your system. Making connections with every child every day has a positive impact for the child for their academic and social growth. Time well spent :)

Karen Bell's picture

This is a great blog. The idea that one teaching style works for every kid is absurd. There are so many different forms of teaching methods in education -- and it is wonderful! Could you imagine if they changed everything at the store to one size fits all? Whew, thank goodness that didn't happen.

Recently I wrote a blog on blended learning and how easy it can be to start incorporating it in the classroom today, http://vingapp.com/5-easy-ways-use-blended-learning-classroom/.

We do not live in a one size fits all kind of world -- so our schools shouldn't be either.

Debbie I.'s picture

Knowing something about each student's interests and specific abilities outside of what you track in the classroom is critical but can be intimidating in scope. I've worked primarily in the elementary schools and differentiation for 25 students has been a challenge, but manageable. I'm back in graduate school and working on moving to secondary education. The idea of differentiating at an individual level for 120 economics students seems impossible. I think quick and frequent electronic student surveys may help me get to know students better and consequently serve their interests better as well. Thanks for a lot to think about!

(1)
John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning
Blogger

Hi Debbie,
Thanks for your ideas. Shifting from elementary to secondary, you bring lots of tools and strategies that will help your work with high school students, such as centers and small group coaching. The danger of secondary is the temptation to use lecture and only whole group instruction as the major tools. These tools are useful, and should be included in a mix of other tools depending on the students' needs. I have other articles on this topic via Edutopia that you might find useful:
Students Matter: 3 Steps for Effective Differentiated Instruction
http://www.edutopia.org/blog/3-steps-effective-differentiated-instructio...

How Learning Profiles Can Strengthen Your Teaching
http://www.edutopia.org/blog/learning-profiles-john-mccarthy

There's No Time to Differentiate: Myth-Busting DI, Part 2
http://www.edutopia.org/blog/differentiated-instruction-myth-no-time-joh...

Rachel Mara's picture

I find it interesting that the author refutes the idea of DI being incompatible with standardized testing. I always thought this was accurate; however, in reality, I suppose we do needs these statistics to learn whether our current education system and strategies are working or not. I never really thought about it that way. I saw a similar debate on another edu blog at thornhill-tutor.com/Literacy-Test-Prep.html , but they did not take the same stance.

Debbie I.'s picture

Knowing something about each student's interests and specific abilities outside of what you track in the classroom is critical but can be intimidating in scope. I've worked primarily in the elementary schools and differentiation for 25 students has been a challenge, but manageable. I'm back in graduate school and working on moving to secondary education. The idea of differentiating at an individual level for 120 economics students seems impossible. I think quick and frequent electronic student surveys may help me get to know students better and consequently serve their interests better as well. Thanks for a lot to think about!

(1)

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.