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:
- The RAFTs strategy helps students develop writing for a target audience and improving their authors' craft. Options can be varied for student readiness, skill levels, interests, and/or learning profiles.
- Teach students the use of different graphic organizers and note-taking strategies (i.e. Cornell and Scholastic). Once learned, students choose the approach that works best for them.
- Consider guided reading (see this overview and example) and response to intervention (RTI). These systems are natural structures for differentiating. They analyze a student's data to plan and implement support that is specifically targeted to his or her needs.
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:
- Guided Reading: Fountas and Pinnell, and Anita Iaquinta's article in Early Childhood Education Journal.
- 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.
In This Series
- Myth-Busting Differentiated Instruction: 3 Myths and 3 Truths
- 3 Guidelines to Eliminating Assessment Fog
- 3 Ways to Plan for Diverse Learners: What Teachers Do
- 15+ Readiness Resources for Driving Student Success
- How Learning Profiles Can Strengthen Your Teaching
- Learner Interest Matters: Strategies for Empowering Student Choice
- There's No Time to Differentiate: Myth-Busting DI, Part 2
- Igniting Student Writer Voice With Writing Process Strategies
- Empowering Student Writers
- 50+ Tools for Differentiating Instruction Through Social Media
- Differentiation Is Just Too Difficult: Myth-Busting DI Part 3