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Beyond Differentiated Education

In many ways, the American education system remains firmly rooted in the times during which it was formalized—the age of the Industrial Revolution. This system seeks to create productive members of society as quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively as possible. Although this works for the majority, it certainly doesn’t work for all, and this is where differentiated learning comes in.

In Leadership for Differentiating Schools & Classrooms, Carol Ann Tomlinson and Susan Demirsky Allan explain what’s going on when a teacher is seeking to differentiate their instruction:

“A teacher who is differentiating understands a student’s needs to express humor, or work with a group, or have additional teaching on a particular skill, or delve more deeply into a particular topic, or have guided help with a reading passage—and the teacher responds actively and positively to that need. Differentiation is simply attending to the learning needs of a particular student or small group of students rather than the more typical pattern of teaching the class as though all individuals in it were basically alike. … The goal of a differentiated classroom is maximum student growth and individual success.”

This is a noble goal, and when implemented faithfully it is one that has experienced success in every type of learning environment imaginable. But it isn’t possible for all teachers, classes, and schools to achieve this ambition, as moving to a differentiated method of teaching often requires commitment and skills that some educators lack.

The challenges in differentiation are great:

  • Class sizes don’t easily lend themselves to differentiation; how can 30 students each receive an individualized lesson in the span of an hour?
  • Learning materials are designed to maintain the status quo, offering few resources for students who are working ahead or falling behind.
  • Assessment needs to occur on a continuous and consistent basis in order to inform the learning, which requires class time—and if formal assessment is required, it also demands the teacher’s grading and planning time.
  • Classroom-based differentiation strategies still ignore the concept of engagement; in the hands of a less than engaging teacher, the student will still tune out, even though a lesson maybe have been designed specifically for that individual.
  • Even differentiation isn’t truly individualized; many teachers rely on small-group instruction in differentiation models in an effort to meet the burden of class size.

Meeting these challenges is the next step in wide-scale differentiation adoption. Without addressing these systemic problems, differentiated instruction will never move from the case-by-case success model it currently occupies. So how do we move forward?

What is beyond differentiated instruction?

Educational practices are cyclical. New ideas are greeted as panaceas to the system’s ills, and over time they often gain widespread adoption. Perhaps the concept or method even becomes standard practice. Although eventually, another new idea will doubtless appear that once again supplants the standard.

Differentiation has an opportunity to break this cycle. First, it’s based on the commonly held belief that students learn in different ways and at different speeds. Of course we should try to address those needs. Second, the data points at its efficacy. But can it be improved to meet the needs of a wider swath of teachers and students?

Perhaps technology holds the key.

Before, technology in the classroom served limited purposes. It either guided students through tasks and lessons that were the same for every student, or it was used to provide formal assessment. Although these approaches saved the teacher time and occupied the bulk of the students while some remediation was occurring with struggling students, differentiation wasn’t occurring for the majority of students. The computer was little more than a teaching assistant.

Technology in classrooms improved as particular features began to accommodate the various learning styles of individual students. A student with a limited vocabulary, such as an ELL student, can now easily look up an unknown word. A student who learns best through visual means can find videos demonstrating a complicated concept. But we’ve even moved beyond that.

This isn’t to say that technology now holds the promise of replacing teachers, but it is intelligent enough to perform assessment and prescribe changes in the curriculum simultaneously for each student. Not only are learning styles and speeds being addressed, so are remediation needs. If the environment is engaging and perhaps game-based, all of differentiation’s scale problems can be solved.