Myth-Busting Differentiated Instruction: 3 Myths and 3 Truths | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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 (38)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Gabi Villavicencio Gordón's picture

Thanks for sharing! I liked your post!
Your idea about learn a large amount of teaching strategies vs. having a philosophy of Differentiated instruction is the basis of our teaching practicum. We cannot think about giving our students isolated activities that can solve superficial problems but actually assess and diagnose the different needs that students bring to the class.
Standardize tests are the most scaring phases during the school year. We as teachers want to prepare our students to approve them successfully; however, I personally used to teach to the test or standards. The low students failed all the time. I did not consider enough time and work for them to reach the standards. I only taught for all the class. Now I understood that taking time for my struggling students and properly supporting them, all of us would reach our goals. They need more time, challenge and support.
When we face a problem with our superiors, we have to be sure that there is a large research support for differentiating instruction. We only need to be secure about what we are applying and what the purpose is. We cannot implement any activity without assessing and really knowing our students needs and interests. Then we will probably fail and all the backup literature can become completely useless.

Andrés Peralta Sari's picture

As educators we are all the time exposed to different myths that revolve around our profession. In terms of Differentiated Instruction, these myths are more likely to emerge due to the tabooed nature it has been given. I admit that in my first years as a teacher I was very reluctant to consider DI as core part of my planning and instruction. I did have the belief that accommodations for my classes (which fluctuated between 30 to 40 students per room) were impossible to implement. Lack of time and resources were the two major impediments that constrained me from applying differentiated activities for my struggling students. Additionally, as many teachers, I also was concerned about not meeting national standards if I did not follow the "regular" procedures for my classes.

Fortunately, after knowing more about DI and the real positive outcomes that derive from its correct implementation, I realized that all those myths can actually be discarded. Indeed, it supposes more effort for you as an educator, but the eventual results are worth the effort since your students will achieve academically and you feel your work will become more valuable and effective.

(1)
Anabel Gonzalez's picture

In one of my previous jobs as a teacher in Ecuador, we had been talking about differentiated instruction for years. The publishing company that provided us with books and professional development was in charge of training teachers on best practices about how to teach English as a foreign language. Every year we had endless workshops on different ways to differentiate instruction. After six years of training, I ended up with more than 50 handouts on strategies that supposedly would make content and skills more "reachable" to my students. I probably don't need to say that very few strategies actually worked. In those workshops, we were taught to think that it was the strategy itself that could do the trick, but it didn't because the most important piece was missing, the student. In your blog you made a very important point. We need to thoroughly evaluate our students before we differentiate. It is our responsibility to identify their readiness level, learning styles, previous schooling, etc. Said analysis has to be done through differentiated instruction in order to find the best tools to meet our students' needs. Both aspects, DI and the students' necessities are the items we need to combine to obtain the right results to reach all learners.

(1)
Ana Cris's picture

I am an EFL teacher and I believe that teaching is a gratifying activity. It requires several skills, and more than that, great commitment with students and the community. I agree that DI is not a collection of strategies. However, most of us have been differentiating our instruction without even noticing! I think that our students will greatly benefit from differentiated activities if we take the time, not to throw all our pedagogy and beliefs away, but to adapt what we already do in class to meet our students' needs. DI is a long-term process, so let us be constant and keep it up to reach all of our learners.

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

Hi Rachel,
Thanks for raising that point. If lessons are standards-based, then that means when assessed formatively we learn what students know and do not understand. Diagnosing that data leads to differentiation.

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

Hi Gabi,
Great points. Interestingly, formative assessments are widely accepted as a concept for good instruction. It's also the bases for differentiation. Can only diagnose needs if we have quality data :)

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

Hi Andres,
It's so true, the hardest challenge is recognizing that the reasons give for why DI "can't" be done is typically because of needs of adults overriding the needs of the students.

The question I ask myself: Is this good for students or convenient for me?

Students take precedence.

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

Anabel,
Well said. What are some approaches do you use to determine needs for ELL students?

Joanne Yatvin's picture
Joanne Yatvin
Retired teacher and administrator

For 13 years I was the principal of an elementary school in Madison, Wisconsin. A few of my teachers were using differentiated instruction, mainly in the Language Arts. I learned from them. Althugh their "system" was not complicated and did not isolate or label students by ability, it was was very successful for all students. as a result of watching these gifted teachers and their students, I dedicated myself into persuading the whole teaching staff to adopt their beliefs and methods. I helped by converting all classrooms to mixed-grades and allowing the current teachers to place students in classrooms for the following year. Our Differentiated program changed and grew over the years, even extending to a "Gifted" program that allowed any child who was interested to participate in it and any participant who lost interest to leave it. Ultimately, I wrote a book entitled, "A Room with a Differentiated View," published by Heinemann that has been very popular.

(1)
Joanne Yatvin's picture
Joanne Yatvin
Retired teacher and administrator

For 13 years I was the principal of an elementary school in Madison, Wisconsin. A few of my teachers were using differentiated instruction, mainly in the Language Arts. I learned from them. Althugh their "system" was not complicated and did not isolate or label students by ability, it was was very successful for all students. as a result of watching these gifted teachers and their students, I dedicated myself into persuading the whole teaching staff to adopt their beliefs and methods. I helped by converting all classrooms to mixed-grades and allowing the current teachers to place students in classrooms for the following year. Our Differentiated program changed and grew over the years, even extending to a "Gifted" program that allowed any child who was interested to participate in it and any participant who lost interest to leave it. Ultimately, I wrote a book entitled, "A Room with a Differentiated View," published by Heinemann that has been very popular.

(1)
Ana Cris's picture

I am an EFL teacher and I believe that teaching is a gratifying activity. It requires several skills, and more than that, great commitment with students and the community. I agree that DI is not a collection of strategies. However, most of us have been differentiating our instruction without even noticing! I think that our students will greatly benefit from differentiated activities if we take the time, not to throw all our pedagogy and beliefs away, but to adapt what we already do in class to meet our students' needs. DI is a long-term process, so let us be constant and keep it up to reach all of our learners.

(1)
Anabel Gonzalez's picture

In one of my previous jobs as a teacher in Ecuador, we had been talking about differentiated instruction for years. The publishing company that provided us with books and professional development was in charge of training teachers on best practices about how to teach English as a foreign language. Every year we had endless workshops on different ways to differentiate instruction. After six years of training, I ended up with more than 50 handouts on strategies that supposedly would make content and skills more "reachable" to my students. I probably don't need to say that very few strategies actually worked. In those workshops, we were taught to think that it was the strategy itself that could do the trick, but it didn't because the most important piece was missing, the student. In your blog you made a very important point. We need to thoroughly evaluate our students before we differentiate. It is our responsibility to identify their readiness level, learning styles, previous schooling, etc. Said analysis has to be done through differentiated instruction in order to find the best tools to meet our students' needs. Both aspects, DI and the students' necessities are the items we need to combine to obtain the right results to reach all learners.

(1)
Andrés Peralta Sari's picture

As educators we are all the time exposed to different myths that revolve around our profession. In terms of Differentiated Instruction, these myths are more likely to emerge due to the tabooed nature it has been given. I admit that in my first years as a teacher I was very reluctant to consider DI as core part of my planning and instruction. I did have the belief that accommodations for my classes (which fluctuated between 30 to 40 students per room) were impossible to implement. Lack of time and resources were the two major impediments that constrained me from applying differentiated activities for my struggling students. Additionally, as many teachers, I also was concerned about not meeting national standards if I did not follow the "regular" procedures for my classes.

Fortunately, after knowing more about DI and the real positive outcomes that derive from its correct implementation, I realized that all those myths can actually be discarded. Indeed, it supposes more effort for you as an educator, but the eventual results are worth the effort since your students will achieve academically and you feel your work will become more valuable and effective.

(1)
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)

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