Differentiated Instruction

Myth-Busting Differentiated Instruction: 3 Myths and 3 Truths

July 8, 2014 Updated September 1, 2015

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. For some educators, the Lattice Method is controversial. Just read some of the FB comments. After multiple failed attempts, this strategy made a difference for my daughter. She rediscovered her confidence in math.

As educators, we know that learning is not one size fits all, and what's best for some students may not be for others. 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. So long as the strategy has a track record of supporting learning, it can be turned into a differentiated tool for heightened effectiveness.

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

Consider that effective teachers have a wealth of tools that 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 that needs 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 use ongoing 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 well students test. 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. When content coverage becomes the focus, everyone loses. To learn, students require the analytical and empathy skills of a teacher. Just because content is covered doesn't mean that students have learned. 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 that 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 Differentiation 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 provide more in-depth learning experiences.

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 that differentiation is part of the framework for building student success. Some examples include:

  1. Guided Reading: Fountas and Pinnell, and Anita Iaquinta's article in Early Childhood Education Journal (PDF).
  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. We need to ensure that students' learning needs do not fall in priority and stay above instructor and administrator needs. In this more complicated world, differentiated instruction is a critical lens to successful learning experiences for students.

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