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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Inventing Differentiation: A Guest Blog by Carol Ann Tomlinson

By Carol Ann Tomlinson — August 14, 2014 5 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by Carol Ann Tomlinson. Carol is the William Clay Parrish, Jr. Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy and co-director of the Institutes on Academic Diversity at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia.

When I was in elementary school, everyone in my class was pretty much like me in terms of ethnicity, language, economic status, and family security. There was one exception--a girl who would likely now be identified as eligible for special education services for moderate cognitive difficulties. I was a little afraid of her. Her differences were unfamiliar to me and I didn’t know how to be her friend.

When I was in high school, there was one student in our graduating class of 494 who spoke a language other than English as a first language. He was an exchange student from Germany, and a bit of a celebrity because of his novelty.

When I was a young teacher, my first students were about half African American and half Caucasian. That diversity was not an evolutionary change, but rather quite revolutionary. It was the first year of mandated integration in the small Southern community where I began my career and readjusted my thinking about the need for an inclusive human family.

By the latter part of my 21 year public school teaching career, my students were routinely a mix of African American and Caucasian; high, middle, and low income; students from one and two parent families; a few stay-at-home moms (and one stay-at-home dad); kids all over the map in terms of academic entry points--and I even had one English language learner.

Two decades later, most classes are a much more kaleidoscopic mix of kids. In my opinion, that’s good news. It can help young people become much more savvy about the world they live in--much more open to and appreciative of diverse perspectives, talents, possibilities.

I’m puzzled, however, by how many classrooms still proceed as though the differences students bring to the classroom with them are either of little academic significance or an inconvenience. It’s not that we don’t see the differences, it’s that we often do little to respond to them.

It’s painful to change old habits of almost any kind and certainly no less so in a classroom where so many young people need so much from one adult. A veteran teacher once said to me, “I just don’t see how you can expect teachers to attend to student differences when there are so many kids with so many needs in our classes.” On some level, the comment sounded comical, but the teacher’s face looked tired and sad and a little desperate. I understood the translation.

Differentiating instruction would be hard.”

Every significant endeavor seems too hard if we look only at the expert’s product. In the beginning, golf pros once regularly hit divots, master chefs initially burned dinner, the wisest parents regularly said foolish things to their children, and renowned surgeons in an earlier time doubted their hands. The success of all these “seasoned” people stemmed largely from three factors. They started down a path. They wanted to do better. They kept working toward their goal.

I’m often asked how to get started with differentiation. I’m inclined to say, “It doesn’t matter. Just start.” That’s not helpful, though. A better answer is, “Study your students. Work steadily to understand them better as individuals. Observe what encourages and discourages them. Listen to the stories they want to tell you. See how they interact with peers and how the interactions appear to affect them. Observe their success-to-effort ratio in your class, and how they respond to both errors and successes. Hone in on their strengths. Get a sense of their fundamental “soundness” with foundational skills that support learning. As we increasingly understand the distinctness of the humans in front of us, differentiation becomes an informed teaching.

In the years when my colleagues and I “invented” differentiation--as countless teachers have invented it before and since--there were no books to explain “differentiation” to us, no videos to model it, no conferences to attend to help us over inevitable humps. We worked from one conviction and five principles. We began with the conviction that we could not serve our obviously heterogeneous students if we taught them without regard to their differences. From that launching pad, we came to five guiding principles.

1) We needed to teach what mattered most in the content for which we had responsibility and in a way that helped students see why it mattered. We asked ourselves often, “Why are we asking the kids to learn this??” Textbooks, grades and tests were not acceptable answers.

2) We needed to plan for student engagement. There was an ad slogan at the time that said, “Medicine doesn’t have to taste bad to be good.” We clung to the belief that we could be creative enough to teach whatever needed teaching in ways that appealed to young adolescents.

3) We had to build a sense of community--a team of learners--so that both teachers and students had partners for success.

4) We needed to emphasize the primacy of growth--for every student, every day.

5) We had to figure out an ebb and flow of classroom time that allowed a balance between what the class needed to do as a whole and what students needed to do individually or in small groups.

From those “givens,” we made proposals. “What if we try it this way?” We shared successes--and lesson plans, and materials. We became comfortable with saying, “That was a mess. There’s got to be a better way. Let’s look at why this approach worked, or didn’t, and go from there.”

At that point in my career, if you’d asked why our classes were successful--and largely they were--I’d have probably described some of the strategies we used that we could see contributing to both student delight and student growth. At this point in my career, I’d say it was because we were determined to do better by more kids, began our planning with “invitational” content and instruction, were unafraid to fail, and learned to think flexibly. Everything else was an outgrowth of that sound footing. The very diverse students who will join us at schools across the country and in much of the world this year need teachers who are determined inventors of mechanisms for helping every learner connect with the power of learning. In the end, that’s what differentiation is. In the end, that’s what successful teaching is.

Bio: Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish, Jr. Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy and co-director of the Institutes on Academic Diversity at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia. One of education’s most influential voices, Tomlinson’s books include The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, 2nd Edition (ASCD, 2014) and Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom (ASCD, 2013).

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.