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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

‘Stop Hiding Behind the Factory Model of Teaching': Rick Wormeli on Differentiation

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 12, 2018 5 min read
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Editor’s Note: This is the first post in a new series I’m calling “A Look Back.” In it, I’ll be highlighting a particularly insightful response an educator has provided in a past column.

Today’s post is sharing Rick Wormeli’s response to the question:

“What is the best advice you can give to a teacher about differentiating instruction?”

The full original column, which also includes a response from Carol Tomlinson, was headlined Several Ways to Differentiate Instruction.

I have shared several posts on this topic over the years, and you can see all of them at Differentiating Instruction.

Rick Wormeli is a well-known author, workshop leader and educator. A second edition of his book, Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom, will be out on April 1st:

There is no one book, video, presenter, or website that will show everyone how to differentiate instruction. Let’s stop looking for it. One size rarely fits all. Our classrooms are too diverse and our communities too important for such simplistic notions.

Instead, let’s realize what differentiation really is: highly effective teaching, which is complex and interwoven; no one element defining it. Reading multiple books and watching many videos on accomplished teaching as well as listening to presenters speak on effective teaching and augmenting all those insights with perspectives gained from on-line communities, faculty conversation, PLCs, and dedicated Websites prepares teachers best for teaching, i.e. differentiated instruction.

Professor and differentiation expert Diane Heacox reminded me a few years ago that differentiation is foremost a mindset. It’s only 10 percent craft and mechanics of pulling it off. If we’re attentive to the results of formative assessments, for example, we realize that Michael needs 15 minutes with a mentor to review proper lab write-up procedures, LaShawn needs help with Punnett Squares in the Genetics unit, and Umber is ready to write something more compelling in her studies on political rhetoric. Without the focus on formative assessment and adjusting learning in response to what it reveals, however, these students drift with needs unmet, academic potential dwindling. Are our minds tuned to differentiation possibilities?

In a successful differentiated class, we stop hiding behind the factory model of teaching. We teach in whatever way students best learn, even if that’s different student to student, or different from the way we best learn ourselves. Many of us are guilty of that from time to time—teaching the way we best learn, not the way our students best learn, myself included. We can do better. We can embrace the root of differentiation: responsive teaching. As students’ learning story is revealed, we adjust our instruction in order to maximize their learning. If a student needs more, less, or a different challenge, we provide it as we can.

Most schools conspire against this, unfortunately. As institutions, they are designed to meet the needs of students who “get it” first or easiest. This curriculum-by-age approach protects the status quo, and it provides a false sense of orderly effectiveness. Since teaching and learning can be messy processes, we seek easy schematics; they make us feel like we know what we’re doing and we are in control. As a consequence, we are our own worst enemies when we try to teach so students actually move content and skills into long-term memory. In order to live up to a school’s mission, we sometimes have to part way with its protocols.

Accepting differentiation more as a collection of principles about responsive teaching than a collection of quick recipes for someone’s diversity cookbook is my first piece of advice, as practical as those recipes may be. Mitigating the negative aspects of the factory model of schooling is my second. In addition to these, I suggest we:

• Build our personal capacity for creative thinking and problem-solving. Differentiation requires us to take risks, think divergently, and move out of comfort zones.

• Read and converse professionally. The best differentiation teachers I know read professional journals, books, and/or blogs regularly, and they take the time to discuss their ideas with colleagues in and out of their buildings. They share lesson plans for collegial review. Multiple perspectives help us teach smarter, not harder.

• Lower our professional standards. Yep, I said to lower them. So many of us are trying to do everything wise and wonderful every single day in the classroom while dealing with teacher-bashing media and an impoverished, ever-increasing class-size world. It’s too much; we have to conserve what little energy we have left at the end of the day for ourselves and families. Since we can’t do it all, we end up not doing any of it. Instead, try one differentiation idea per month for three years. Give yourself time and space to improve. This is healthy and reasonable. And every time you focus on one differentiation idea formally, it’ll affect many of the other elements in your teaching. You’ll actually continue your high standards and integrity, but you have license to be imperfect as you grow. This is the professional.

• Spend considerable time demonstrating to yourself and others how your assessments - pre-, formative, summative, common - inform your instructional decisions. We don’t put students into small groups, for example, because that is what differentiating teachers do. We put them into those groups because of something specific we knew about those students indicated the small group experience would improve their learning over what could be achieved in a whole class experience. To this end, get analytical daily: What impact did our instruction have on students and how do we know?

• Construct a solid understanding of the unique nature of the students you serve. There are universal characteristics about how brains of all ages learn, but there are very specific characteristics of the 12-year-old’s brain that we don’t find in the brains of 18-year-olds or the brains of 6-year-olds. Let’s articulate these differences and respond to them in our lessons.

Finally, I highly recommend teachers see teaching as something they do with students, not to students. It’s a collaboration to conduct the enterprise of schooling, and every successful classroom I’ve ever found embraced a modified democracy and mutual ethos of respect between student and teacher. Honor the student’s experience and aspirations, and the student will honor our suggestions and example. We can live with this; we can even thrive.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.