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Differentiation: The Dirtiest Word In Education Today

by Jose Vilson on November 14, 2011

in Mr. Vilson

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 …

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First, read this article. Check this excerpt:

Since she took over at the university seven years ago, the institution has spent tens of millions of dollars—and attracted much more—to revitalize this sagging Rust Belt city. It has helped refurbish parks, taken over an abandoned building where drug dealers once grew marijuana, and turned an old furniture warehouse into a new home for academic programs in art, drama, and fashion design. The university is encouraging professors to focus their research on the city, while giving free tuition to local high-school graduates.

Ms. Cantor talks about the institution as a “public good,” not an ivory tower. But some professors here say she has spent too little time and money on what goes on inside the university’s classrooms, laboratories, and libraries where traditional education and scholarship take place. Before she came, they say, Syracuse was on the way to becoming a more selective university that competed with some of the nation’s best private urban institutions. Now, the chancellor seems most intent on providing opportunities—both for this struggling city and for disadvantaged students. As a result, Syracuse is fading on the national stage, falling in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of national universities and dropping out—before it could be forced out—of the prestigious Association of American Universities, whose members are considered the nation’s top research institutions.

After reading the article, I thought: “So, let me get this straight. Syracuse University recruits from the same SAT scores, recruit from the same top of the class, builds more infrastructure, develops an amazing experiential relationship with the surrounding city, and doubles the percent of students of color, and the standards are somehow lowered? I know I’m a bit biased, but Nancy Cantor has done amazing work to ensure that Syracuse as an institution has lots more integrity in how it achieves high standards and diversity. Yes, I can highlight the -ahem- difficulties with claiming that caring more about the surrounding urban areas and issues of inclusion lead to a decrease in the academic quality of the institution, but I’d rather just stand behind those who continue to empower those who believe in quality higher education for all.”

Amen.

Mr. Vilson, who is working in all aspects of education …

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