Differentiation: The Dirtiest Word In Education Today

Jose VilsonEducation, Resources21 Comments

Be Different

It’s like a few people sat around a table, steaming mad at their own opposing views on the direction of education, and said, “What’s a good word that we can all hold our hands around?” The minute they spread the word around, it became the go-to word for evaluators and validators across the country. People began to set up stations all around their classroom with no rationale for their stations. Teachers sat down for hours of PD on the word “differentiation” where people heard that this word, vital for the 21st century classroom, ought to appear out of thin air with no concrete examples to follow. Some person who is equally as qualified in differentiation (meaning, not at all) with a clipboard might come in your room and rate your differentiation skills on a rubric  created by one of your favorite validators, too.

But don’t be afraid because it’s not the first nor will it be the last time we’ve been thrown a quasi-scientific / pedagogical term that has been called a “best practice” without proper training or clear-cut examples of what that looks like.

As “differentiation” suggests, no one ought to be against differentiation. I know I’m not. You’d be crazy to do that. I think. I mean, we know it has something to do with trying to get the most out of every student no matter what level they land on whatever assessment we give them. I think one of the validators, Carol Tomlinson, defines it as “the process of “ensuring that what a student learns, how he/she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he/she has learned is a match for that student’s readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning.”

That sounds great … except for the following contradictions:

  • According to Dan Willingham, different learning styles don’t really exist. Everyone needs to see things. They might interpret what they see differently because of their previous experiences, academic or otherwise.
  • In this age of hyper-standardized testing, many teachers don’t see the point of differentiating if they’re all being assessed against the same measure? (And no, giving a student more or less time to complete the task is not differentiating … is it?)
  • We all have “standards.” For some of us, they’re just the baseline for learning in the classroom, and we can / should exceed them as need be. Many of our higher-ups see these standards as the barometer for good teaching, and if that’s the case, then why differentiate if we’re held to these uniform guidelines?
  • Isn’t it weird for us to have differentiation in light of a Common Core?
  • Multiple pathways are plausible, but how many people are trained in the fine art of reading student work? The only problem I have with teachers not being able to check their own students’ work on extended-responses is this: who is most qualified to look at the students’ exam and understand what the person is saying more than the teacher who’s been with them for the better part of the year? If we’re saying that any random educator should be able to understand what the student said, and we’re measuring these responses against a rubric, then we’re admitting that student responses, no matter what level we perceive our students to be, ought to have a similar look and not too different.

I don’t mean to destroy our perceptions of the word “differentiation” so emphatically; I just have a core belief that we ought to be clear with what we think are best practices. We can’t just profess on the virtues of differentiation without being able to fully demonstrate that in some form. I’d substitute the word “differentiation” for “scaffolding” in that a) it provides a powerful image for what we ought to do in the classroom and b) it leads to discussion around multiple pathways more than differentiation. Differentiation places the onus on teachers to eventually discover what students gravitate to; scaffolding tells the teacher to provide and accept different ways for the student to approach the problem, and whichever the student gravitates to will make the most sense for the student.

There, I’m differentiating, too. But it’s no different than anything I’ve been saying about the execution of any well-meaning practice that comes from on high.

Mr. Vilson, who owns up to every word in his blog …

Comments 21

  1. My sense is that differentiation’s role is a response to race and racism. We can’t “track” because it tends to play out as internal segregation within schools, historically at least. So the classrooms have to be diverse and heterogamous, and then you have to differentiate within the class.

    It is ok as long as people remember that it represents an ideal which is very difficult to achieve. It should be one of the tools in the box, but not an absolute.

  2. I get nervous with “differentiation” because I’ve seen it used to justify things that should not be happening: a kid watching a video instead of reading a book in a reading class, a “hands-on” project that is nothing more than creating a faux Egyptian pyramid, etc.

    I sometimes get nervous with scaffolding, too, because I’ve seen well-intentioned teachers scaffold too much.

    I really enjoyed this post and especially the last part “one of the tools in the box, but not an absolute.”

  3. We recently had a bunch of clipboards do a whirlwind tour and proclaim a lack of “differentiation”, but when they used that term, they referred to differentiating “up” for our higher-level kids. I find that most of the folks using that term are using it to describe some sort of quasi-GATE inclusion of gifted kids in a regular class, while “scaffolding” gets used for the ELs who are below grade level. Just my observation, it’s another culturally/racially loaded term, but not in the way Tom has seen it used.

  4. Thanks for pointing out the contradictions between what teachers are being told is the best way to teach versus the working conditions that try to force us in the opposite direction. Differentiation sounds like what my husband and I did as we raised 11 children. What I like about the term is that it reminds us that each student is a unique human being. As a parent that was always the most important criteria I had for judging a teacher (not her test scores or he was in the top 1/3 of his college class); whether or not s/he could see my children as individuals, know them as learners, and treat them as precious.

  5. This may be the best article on differentiation that I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot. You are exactly right with your contradictions, and it impossible for me to do the balancing act. I’ve often said that I feel like I’m being pulled in two opposite directions, and I don’t 100% agree with either of them. I will definitely be sharing this post.

  6. In my children’s district “differentiation” is currently the magic answer to having 30 or 36 kids in a room soon. The teacher will effectively teach huge classrooms of widely varying kids due to their “differentiation” skills. If they aren’t doing it well, then it’s an inability to “differentiate.”

  7. I don’t have much to add to this fine post and the insightful comments. I just wanted to say that Alice’s phrase, “We recently had a bunch of clipboards do a whirlwind tour…” is about the most apt image for ed reform that I’ve seen all year.

  8. Jose, your definition of scaffolding at the end rings uncannily like my understanding of differentiation. I see scaffolding as something we use to build up students who don’t get it yet until they do and differentiation as something that offers different pathways to the same, common core. Maybe this is a cultural (as in Canadian/American) difference.

    Differentiation does not have to be about learning styles. I don’t believe in learning styles but I do differentiate. In any given class I have taught throughout my career I have had a million and one (ok, maybe a few less) different levels, abilities, circumstances sitting in the chairs around me. If I didn’t differentiate how I ask students to learn a concept and how I ask them to demonstrate what they know, understand, and can do…well, I’d have given up ages ago.

    I agree, that differentiation has become a catch-phrase that people throw around when they pretend to be good teachers (but are really just offering different worksheets for different students) but, at its core, whether you call it differentiation or what, it allows for me to make sure the most students as possible in my room are busy learning.

  9. So, if I’m in an automotive class and you are teaching me to rebuild a motor, and you are doing it only by lecture, it is possible to scaffold and not differentiate, correct? I believe in scaffolding. I also know that some kids could make an A if we lectured about building a motor. Some could make an A if we showed videos on how to rebuild it. Some could only make an A if they put their hands on it. All I’m saying is that I believe learning styles are real. I dont have the magic bullet for teachers having to teach 30 in a class with 3 sub groups 3 languages represented in the room, and no help. But, I do know that there are people like me that you can scaffold what you lecture me to you are blue in the face and I will never make that A on rebuilding a motor. You let me watch someone else and then touch it myself, then I can. Therefore, I believe in the concePt of D. I., I just don’t know how feasible it is ind the current way class is structured.

  10. I think Dan Willingham’s point is that certain types of material are best suited by certain approaches, rather than trying to suit the approach to the student, regardless of the material.

    Tomlinson speaks of differentiating process, content/readiness, and product.

    “Learning styles” addresses process, but is not the only way to do it. For example, I have differentiated for process by having all students do a lab on the same topic, but students who were ready for it designed it themselves, while others designed parts of it within a structure, while those who still had trouble with the basics followed a pre-written lab format.

    Content can be tricky based on your thoughts about everyone taking the same test… but what about giving “regular” and “challenge” homework in math, to recognize that some students mastered the material in class and can take on a bit more? What about times when we allow students to choose a topic to research, or assign them different topics to research? What about book clubs that use different reading level books to provide opportunities for the same skill/thinking practice? Stations can be easily differentiated. I will have weaker readers watch a video presenting some content first, then move to a station with a text-based assignment. Meanwhile, stronger readers do the same text-based assignment first, then move on to a video that deepens and extends the content. These are pretty common practices that all differentiate the content and allow students to access the material at different points and take it to different levels.

    Product can be a lot of work for the teacher, but teachers often provide choice in presentation – a series of journal entries -or- a short video, for example. The trick is developing options that are equal or substantially similar in the cognitive work they demand, but allow students some choice in how they present information. Good rubrics help, too.

    I think the issue is, as always in the DOE, the way simplistic checklists are created and used, not the teaching idea itself. Differentiation is neither incredibly difficult nor pointless, nor is it undermined by research. Administrators need a deeper understanding of what constitutes doing it well, and should not be looking for it in *every single lesson,* but those are different issues, I think.

  11. Sent this to Jose before reading other commentators (Ms. V, especially) make very similar points, but thought I’d add to the conversation nonetheless:

    I wonder if this is a case of the “reverse Midas Touch” of education reformers taking a golden idea and turning it to shit (credit Leo Casey for the phrasing). I agree with the assessment that a lot of people pushing “differentiation” have no idea what they’re talking about. I concur that too often differentiation is thought of in terms of learning styles, which doesn’t really help too much. You’re also right that most people taking the station approach to differentiation aren’t doing it right

    With that said, none of this should discredit the power of the idea. Tomlinson, who I think is better on differentiation than anyone I’ve read, gives a framework for thinking about differentiation: we can do it for process, product, and content. Different forms are appropriate in different situations. In a Common Core, state assessment environment, we’re mostly going to be talking about differentiating for process, which is where varied use of scaffolds is one way to go. I more often differentiate the process for students in my class by using texts at different reading levels, all around the same content.

    When I have more freedom, I differentiate for content as much as possible. In February and March, students will be choosing a public policy issue of their choosing to research in depth and to then actually take a stand and advocate for in some way. Differentiation here allows students to develop their passions, while all learning the same process and demonstrating the same skills the product requires. My best student work has always come from similar situation.

  12. Excellent Jose! I did a double-take when I started reading your post. It’s as if you had been at my school these past several weeks. Thank you for writing and voicing what so many of us are scratching our heads over.

  13. Thirty years ago Madeline Hunter presented some ideas about the teaching/learning cycle. She talked about content expertise including, understanding a given curriculum so well that a teacher could break it down into smaller pieces and sequence lessons logically (task analysis). Scaffolding depends on this and on Transfer Theory, how we link these chunks of learning together to enhance comprehension and improve memory.

    “Differenciations” isn’t working now because the politicians don’t know and the “educational clip board holders” have forgotten how complex curriculum is. It is facts and skills and levels of thinking, and teaching all that is huge.
    In this age of educational television, you just might have a second grade student who has watched every animal show on the discovery channel, but he/she can’t read about it, write about it or apply what they know to a class pet- -let alone do a power point presentation that enhances their understanding.
    Math curriculum at the elementary level has a dozen subcategories to cover, number/operations, probability, geometry, algebra, etc., etc. And our text books “spiral” through that broad curriculum so at no time do we actually reach mastery on any particular objective.
    It takes years after credentialing for a teacher to become a curriculum expert.

    The second step of Hunter’s teaching/learning cycle is diagnosis. Not only do you have to know what you are teaching, you have to have the knowledge of who you are teaching; how old, developmentally what is normal, where do they live and what experiences have their families and communities provided them. And that’s just be beginning. Now we have to compare the student to the task analysis. Where are they on that learning continuum? Most educators believe that most kids can learn the next step, but the current idiot proof curriculum packages and district timelines (if it’s Tuesday, you better be on page 25) aren’t really created to facilitate that sort of differenciation.
    Consider the child misses school once a week. How many holes are there in his/her learning? Consider the kid who moves schools regularly, or is homeless and out of school for an unknown period? Now think about those who haven’t slept, ate or been with their family. Teachers need to gather all this information and more in order to differenciate.

    Sorry, we don’t have time to do all that diagnosis when classes are at 30 to 34 kids. Now let’s add the complexity of today’s classroom. Let’s mainstream the blind, deaf and physically handicapped. Let’s include special needs students with emotional disabilities and or conduct disorders. Meet the child with Turets. Let’s introduce the Autistic child who flaps, or rocks or in other ways is unable to interact in a physically crowded space. Let’s look at the kids with computers in their homes and the ones without. Let’s talk about the kids who come to school and aren’t allowed to watch video, because the television is
    the “devil’s tool”. Add the kid who has been molested. Complex, complex, complex!

    There are several more components of the teaching/learning cycle with great pedagogy
    and how to strategies. If anyone is interested.

    I believe that all children can learn. I believe strongly in diagnostic/prescriptive teaching. That’s what we did before “differenciation”. I believe in professional, well trained teachers – life long learners – making decisions in their own classrooms based on the students they have. I believe in celebrating growth, not national ranking. I believe this article was an exercise/discussion of educational jargon and is disconnected from the real issues of today’s classroom.

  14. Post

    Wow, thanks for the comments. First, many of you were right that this is concurrently a discussion on edu-jargon and the disastrous effects of taking a wonderful idea and turning it into mish-mosh and checklists. As Ms. V and Stephen both eloquently highlighted, there are ways to differentiate that are actually in touch with what’s happening in the classroom.

    However, I take issue with the contention that there’s a disconnect between what actually happens in this article and what happens in the classroom. If anything, my current teaching is exactly why I had to write it. Not just mine, but hundreds of classrooms across the nation. Because there were so many different versions of the word “differentiation,” it’s a real issue when people come into your class and say “that’s not differentiation” without a common definition or characteristics for it.

    Also, Tom Hoffman struck the head of the nail with a huge-ass hammer.

    Thanks to all that commented.

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  20. Differentiation like any pedagogical catch phrase can be used for agendas. While the above is one way of thinking about differentiation another is that classrooms are much more heterogeneous. ELL, ESL, Inclusion in many areas…..not just learning styles. A grade thee classroom may have readers ranging from non-reader to grade six ability reader or more.

    In these cases we do have to differentiate based on ability and background knowledge. We see the ability differences in all schools unless academic goals need to be met for admittance – in all grades.

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