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Education Opinion

Differentiated Instruction and the Bionic Man

By Jal Mehta — May 12, 2011 4 min read
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By Greg Gunn

As I’ve observed some of the response to our original piece this week, it has been interesting to see questions raised about the roles of both differentiated instruction and technology in effective teaching, and how they relate to our view of the “superhuman” demands placed on today’s teachers. Today I want to dig a bit deeper on the fundamental connections between these.

Differentiated instruction, in and of itself, is not what is making teachers have to be superhuman to be effective. After all, the practice of “tracking"--grouping elementary school students into low, middle, and high performers, and giving them different instruction which ultimately leads to those same students becoming low, middle, and high-performing graduates--is a differentiated instruction technique that has been practiced successfully in many schools for decades. The goal in this model was not to change student trajectories; rather, it was to move each group of students, as best one could, along a path that one thought was inevitable--good or bad. The average educator could achieve this goal within traditional structures, so the system was content to leave those structures in place--even though most teachers hoped to be able to do much more for their kids and struggled hard to do so.

But differentiated instruction today is aimed at a very different goal. We want to use it to dramatically improve learning trajectories for all students. We want to take kids who come in as low performers and put them on a path to genuine academic success. We want to maximize the learning potential of every child, whether they enter school struggling or already know how to acquire new knowledge effortlessly. But this kind of differentiated instruction is incredibly demanding on the educator--it demands an understanding of what each child knows and is ready to learn next; it requires work on figuring out how to motivate each student; it requires a tremendous amount of planning on a daily basis to determine what each day should offer for each child. This is skilled, nuanced, incredibly time-consuming work--and is why a lone teacher working within conventional classroom structures and with conventional tools almost has to be a superhuman to do it effectively.

So it isn’t differentiated instruction itself that has changed the expectations teachers face. It is the new goal that has done so. But if we believe in the goal, and it is a goal that so many educators have believed in for so long, why wouldn’t we make every move we can to help every educator achieve it?

In our original piece, we described a variety of ways in which instructional organization and work is being, and can be, changed to help teams of education professionals successfully and reliably carry out trajectory-changing differentiated instruction. Some of these involved taking advantage of differentiated roles in instruction, some involved leveraging technology, but many involved using the two approaches together. Other posts this week have focused on the issue of role differentiation, so I’ll turn back to technology.

I was told recently of a comment by a prominent educator that “teaching and learning is a human process, and there is no place for technology in it”. While this comment puzzled me (and since I’m a tech guy as well as an educator, really annoyed me), as I reflected in the days afterward I realized that the first half of the comment was absolutely right. Most of us have had our most pivotal learning experiences while engaged with a teacher who challenged us, inspired us, and just “got” us as individuals.

But the claim about technology is simply wrong. Technology, in the context we describe it, is intended to help teachers spend their time what they really want to be doing--changing kids lives for the better, and doing it well. We are talking about tools that allow more of the important human parts of teaching and learning to happen every day, with the right people, at the right times, and with the right challenges. We use technology-based assessment tools to help the teacher have a more complete understanding of a particular student’s needs, but in a way that minimizes time taken from instruction. We use technology-based analytical and instructional planning tools to make organizing and managing differentiated instruction more accurate and far less time-consuming so the teacher can target his or her efforts better. We use technology-supplied content to make sure that the teacher and student have the best activity available for that moment.

You could view these uses of technology as limiting the scope and importance of teachers. But you would be wrong. You should look at these uses of technology as helping educators, and especially teams of educators, to become bionic.

But whether you’re a fan of these particular approaches or not, we have a simple choice to make. We can either a) abandon the goal of greatly improving learning for all students through differentiated instruction, or b) change the ways in which we organize and carry out instruction--using some methods long-tested and proven, some methods just being invented today, and some methods involving technology--to help every educator achieve the goal. It is our choice, but given all we have at our disposal today, it would seem simply a shame to choose the former over the latter.

Greg M. Gunn is a venture partner at City Light Capital, a New York City-based impact-investing firm, and co-founded Wireless Generation.

The opinions expressed in The Futures of School Reform are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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