Differentiation – my version

Experiment: Defending my version of something I don’t really like.

This post is largely my opinion and some personal history. If you are interested in other research and expert commentary, check out: Differentiation Doesn’t Work  or Differentiated Instruction Reexamined 

This is a spillover from Planning differentiation in the classroom where you can read my criticism of differentiation. This post comes from my own experience having to defend my own practice as a teacher and how I could prove that I was differentiating. This is the strange world that teachers live in; I had to defend my own judgement using buzzwords from a concept that I didn’t particularly agree with.

To me differentiation sounds like a terrible mix of individualism of students, an intensification of the work of teachers, and something that may reduce the quality of teaching overall. I had to justify that I was doing it, given the three possibilities of differentiation by material, support, or outcome. So what did I say? I spun the idea of differentiation by outcome and took a fourth approach; That students differentiate naturally if I make it possible.

Is there another way? Can we plan for activities that meet the needs of a broad range of students and be open to the idea that everyone learns something different? Differentiation by outcome is sort of despised as the least effective of the three, but I think that is because it requires trust. Administrators are afraid of trusting teachers, maybe teachers are afraid of trusting students too.  Trust creates situations that are not measurable and results that aren’t immediate. But I trust students and I trust teachers.

I can imagine that even if a student misunderstands the water cycle in grade 3, that someday, they may understand and it that their understanding may have come as a direct result of their grade 3 misunderstanding. That’s sort of the nature of learning. Missing out on it one time does not make or break a student (although it would if we thought education was the memorization of facts!). Is it possible to have a school that cares most deeply about the process? That trusts that going through the process of learning in many subject areas can lead every student to be excellent students even if they all go somewhere different? Can we imagine that teachers can plan activities that can challenge everyone? If we really think that the lowest achieving students need high expectations, isn’t it possible that one part of an activity will be too hard, but another may be fine? Did we really need to make a judgement beforehand? Did support have to be planned and implemented every time? Don’t students differentiate on their own? I think we call that “attention span” and “engagement”. Don’t we trust the teacher to judge if an activity has too little engagement and then to make corrections based on the group vibe?

For me, the trust of administrators broke down before I had the chance to explain. Somehow, the belief that there was a single path for students or that some students were more “talented” than others always seemed to get in the way of productive discussion about differentiation. As a music teacher, a new song was a new song for every student. No student would complete the lesson after listening to me sing it once and I expected they would do more than just mimic me. We would create accompaniments with instruments, create movement, add different parts, try to figure out the story of a song. The measurable part of the lesson was never the goal. Differentiation occurred in how students interacted with the material I laid out for them. The process was the important part. If they didn’t understand that day, maybe it would “click” another day. Some first graders could keep a steady beat in a pattern of four different sounds and sing at the same time while others worked hard to just sing the song listening to others keeping the beat. I was there to make sure that students understood the options available, tried them out, and found their own outcome. It was not more work, it was not impossible work, it was good teaching. I called it differentiation. And it made for an incredibly fun classroom!

But, here’s the problem with differentiation. I think it is embedded within the work of good teachers. It is worth discussing differentiation and making sure that it is possible within every classroom, at the discretion of the teacher. The evidence condemning what I did or upholding differentiation by material will never be clear. It is too difficult to disentangle all of the different ways that teachers plan and react to student engagement in the classroom. Even trying to compare different types of differentiation (for example, if someone tried to prove that differentiation by outcome was actually less effective) any negative result of differentiation by material would just be labeled as the teacher not really differentiating well enough. The impossibility of completely implementing all types of differentiation at all times makes this an argument that can never be won or lost. The most important is that we must discuss what real differentiation is. We must allow for different types and base the use of differentiation on trust in teachers and students. Just because certain types are more obvious, measurable, or can be put into a lesson plan does not make them better!

The picture that accompanies this post is of an Orff music classroom. Read the article here. I like the picture because it is messy and not a performance, but there is obviously differentiation here.

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