Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Looking closely at differentiation.

What is differentiation?

A. The way to avoid pullout interventions for struggling students.
B. The way to enrich gifted students when they are not in special programs.
C. The way, in the 21st century, to make sure each student is taught at his or her level and to his or her greatest potential.
D. All of the above.
E. None of the above.

The answer is D, except when it’s E. How often have you seen differentiation done really well in a classroom? More often than not, the classrooms I visit are led by teachers who know they are supposed to be teaching each child where they’re at, but also know they are not. Sometimes it is a lack of time and resources. Often it is a lack of training. It might be the strictures of a scripted curriculum. Sometimes people don’t do it well because they have never been taught how, and sometimes it’s just because it is hard.

This is a topic that is immensely important and potentially engaging to readers. If a principal tells you, don’t worry, your special child will get exactly what she needs because her teacher individualizes classroom instruction for each student, wouldn’t you want to know exactly what that looks like? How a good idea on paper plays out in reality?

Any school system official would probably tell you their teachers are differentiating. In reality the differentiation is often ad hoc and ineffective. This is particularly important insofar as differentiation is presented as an alternative to tracking, which has fallen out of favor among many. For parents whose children are on the lower end, this often is appealing: keeping students with peers who may teach and motivate them, and out of classrooms where their opportunities may be given a ceiling. Parents of high-performing students are often more skeptical; does the value of being able to motivate and help their peers, they wonder, exceed the risk of being “held back” by lower students?

These are questions that can be answered only by seeing what actually happens day to day in classrooms. As the school year starts, I urge you to spend some time looking at how teachers individualize instruction, how they don’t, and why.


  1. Meghan Murphy, Times Herald RecordAugust 18, 2010 at 7:15 AM

    I've had a few discussions with parents and teachers, all off the record, about inclusion classes and differentiated teaching. Most say that it holds back more capable students to bring up less capable students.

    What I'm looking for is an approach to reporting this, especially when everyone is off the record about it.

  2. Yeah, everyone and their dog claims to be differientiating. I've been writing my book and thus reviewing my old class files. Three times I've had more than 300 students in a year, and I almost always had 200 or more. Last year my 210 students included 18 with full blown mental illness. Twice, I had fewer than 100 students and those years I had no problem differientiating, but i did so in my own intuitive way.

  3. In the 1990s California reduced class size in the early grades to twenty. Although I'm well aware of the research that said it did not make a difference, it made a huge difference for me. For the first time in my career I felt that I could spend time with individual children every day. This is how I did it:

    In my plan book I'd write the name of the children of the day. Each day of the week would have four children. During practice periods I'd go to the desks of those children and evaluate their progress in reading, writing and math. After diagnosing a problem I'd do some on-the-spot teaching. If there was more time, I'd visit with children who almost always needed extra help. I loved having a small class and feel grateful that I retired before it ended. In CA classes will have from 25 to 30 pupils this coming year.

    This topic reminds me of an inequity that is rarely mentioned. In affluent schools, there are often two to four volunteers who help the teacher every day. At my grandchildren's school in affluent Poway, these volunteers are mostly highly educated women who are staying home to care for young children. So while the teacher is instructing a small group "Dr. Smith" will be helping Jose and Sophie with math. In practical terms, these schools often have a "teacher" for every four or five children. The rich get richer.