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Finding Common Ground

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

The Accidental Teacher: An Interview With Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson

By Peter DeWitt — August 18, 2011 10 min read
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“The high stakes test culture runs almost totally counter to what we know about how people learn. It causes us to engage in professional malpractice on a regular basis.” Carol Ann Tomlinson

There is nothing better than watching high-quality instruction. Seeing students engaged with their teacher, doing hands-on activities, or debating about an issue is very exciting. Great teachers easily float from a planned lesson to a teachable moment. If you are fortunate enough, you may get a chance to capture the first moment a student falls in love with a subject that will guide them to their first career.

When I first became a principal after 11 years of teaching, I think I made my staff nervous because I went from one room to the next watching teachers teach and students interact and learn. It wasn’t a secret mission of evaluation, I just really missed teaching. The interaction between a teacher and student is very special and as a principal I have the opportunity to see those interactions every day.

Someone who has spent her life capturing the essence of good teaching is Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson. Dr. Tomlinson has been an educator for more than 40 years and has authored numerous articles and books for educators. Although she is one of the most recognized experts in the field of education and differentiated instruction, she approaches her craft with humility and she asks teachers and administrators to do the same.

As much as Dr. Tomlinson studies good teaching from a scientifically based approach, she knows first and foremost that to be a good teacher takes patience and an open mind because our students come from so many diverse backgrounds where they may not be exposed to the important experiences they need before they enter the school system. She also wants us to understand that our job as educators is highly important because we leave a lasting impact on our students. We need to decide whether we want that impact to be positive or negative.

PD: You focus a lot on approaching teaching with humility. Why do you think that is so important?

CAT: In my experience, professionals who are best in any field approach their work with humility. They know that their work is more than just a job. It’s an exploration of life. Even on days when they feel most confident, things can go wrong. Sometimes even the good things that happen are a mystery--a surprise. There are always elements outside our control. That’s humbling--or should be.

In addition, in the field of education, educators know that they leave a lasting impact on their students for better or for worse. Trust is established or diminished in the classroom and very good educators understand that they are fallible. Despite their best efforts, they will not always do the best for each student. Accepting both the opportunity and the responsibility evokes a great deal of humility.

PD: Why do you think differentiated instruction is so difficult?

CAT: I think it’s largely because we have seen one-size-fits-all instruction for 12 or 13 years before we make it to the university. There, we tend to accumulate even more images of how that approach looks. We have few images of what instruction looks like when it’s attentive to learners’ particular needs. I watch how easily my two dogs are confused by a change in schedule and smile at what creatures of habit they are. Teaching is a very habit-bound endeavor. We’re unsettled by the unfamiliar. We’re creatures of habit too.

That challenge is not made any easier by the challenge of implementing an unfamiliar approach when we have a classroom of 35 to 40 students watching us try.

There actually is nothing that’s particularly complex about differentiation. The hardest part is unlearning--letting go of--what’s comfortable and familiar.

PD: What are the most important elements to teaching students of differing abilities?

CAT: It really comes down to five important elements. The first element is creating a classroom environment that encourages students to take the risk of learning. We’ve known for a long time that when students lack a sense of safety or of belonging or of contribution, learning takes second place to meeting those needs.

The second important element is deeply understanding our curriculum. Most teachers know what they’re going to cover this week or this term. Few of us can specify precisely what students should know, understand, and be able to do as a result of any particular learning experience or set of learning experiences. Without that specificity, alignment between content, assessment, and instruction is weak. In addition, however, we aren’t quite sure what we’re trying to differentiate, and therefore can’t quite see how to do it other than giving some students more to cover and some less. That rarely works.

The third element is skilled use of formative assessment. We need to understand where are students are at any point during a unit--in other words, what each student actually knows, understands, and can do at a given time based on the content goals we’ve established.

Fourth, we need to develop a robust set of tools--strategies and routines--that help us address student variance. It’s easy to come to rely on two or three “trusty” instructional strategies like worksheets and lectures. Those are of little help in planning for a variety of student needs. As we develop a better toolbox, we’re empowered to meet students where they are.

Finally, it’s important to know how to lead and manage a classroom with flexibility. Students of all ages are quite capable of learning these routines and contributing to their success once the teacher is comfortable guiding students in that direction. Until a teacher learns to use elements like time, space, materials, groupings, and so forth flexibly, it’s incredibly difficult to teach students as they need to be taught.

PD: How have students changed over the years that you have been in education?

CAT: On some level students are essentially the same. They are people with fears and dreams. They laugh and cry over many of the same things. They share an essential humanity as young people always have.

They differ in some significant ways now, too, I believe. They are forced to grapple with complex issues at a much younger age. They are exposed to many things the majority of their teachers didn’t encounter until much later in their growing up years.

They are also accustomed to having quick access to information. The idea of “storing” data in their heads can seem pointless. I find that they are also much more interested in learning through problem solving and group collaboration than in the past. They often have a “We can figure this out--don’t just tell us” attitude. In that way, they can be less patient with “traditional” approaches to teaching. Further, they’ve come to expect customized service. No need to buy an album any more to get the song you want. You can download just the one you care about to the MP3 player of your choice that comes in your favorite color. That’s their generation.

I have find that today’s students are often more tolerant of human variance than students in earlier generations might have been. On the other hand, some of our students need much more interaction with a wide variety of peers so they level of understanding deepens and so they are prepared to live in a world that is only going to get smaller.

There’s one difference in today’s students that particularly concerns me. We have students at the university say on a regular basis, “You’re asking us to think and no one has ever done that in school.” We’re teaching a generation of students who’ve been schooled to produce quick, right answers on demand. They are not comfortable with ambiguity. The implications of that in the long term are discomforting.

PD: In your opinion, how much of an effect does high stakes testing really have on students?

CAT: I think it has had a profoundly problematic impact on student learning. It must seem to students that their worth as individuals is equivalent to their test score. The stress the high stakes culture has on teachers is also highly negative and must surely impact students in a negative way. It also de-professionalizes teachers because it encourages them to be script readers, followers of rigid schedules, and to disregard the needs of the people they teach in favor of the scripts and schedules.

The high stakes test culture runs almost totally counter to what we know about how people learn. It causes us to engage in professional malpractice on a regular basis.

We’re at a point where schools change lunch menus around test time to try to boost achievement scores, hold pep rallies to jazz up students and parents for taking the tests, hang posters on the wall commending the importance of scores--and publish in the paper names of teachers whose students may have performed below standard on the test. It’s hard to align those descriptors with any sensible definition of learning and becoming an engaged learner for life.

PD: What has (or needs to) change in preparing teachers for the profession and how to incorporate both the art and science of the craft?

CAT: I think the challenges are similar to those of public school classrooms. We need teacher educators who regularly spend a great deal of time in classrooms so they have a deep understanding of where they students will teach. We need teacher educators who are hungry to learn about and implement contemporary approaches to teaching and learning in their own classrooms and who are reflective about their work with their students.

Prospective teachers may read about the science of education, but they’ll only grasp the art in their early years by seeing it practiced and having it commended to them.

PD: In your article entitled Notes from the Accidental Teacher in Educational Leadership, you mentioned that it’s important to know that you don’t know. What does that mean and why do you think that is important?

CAT: As educators we need to understand that there is no finish line in our work. We can always gain more depth and breadth in our work. There are always new discoveries to be made.
Sometimes educators suffer from the “I already do that” syndrome. In those cases, we feel inadequate if we admit we have a distance to go as learners of our craft. I have little interest in a surgeon who says, “I learned that when I was in medical school. Why should I revisit it?” or who says, “I’ve done that operation the same way for ten years. Don’t bother me with new approaches.” I see teaching in the same way.

The best educators I have met never stop asking questions. Some of them have taught for forty years and continue to be energized by new possibilities. They’ll tell you that if they had 40 more years to teach, they still wouldn’t close to know what they need to know about their work (end of interview).

Dr. Tomlinson calls herself the accidental teacher because she never intended to enter the teaching profession. Many of her family members were teachers andshe had planned on another career, but after her first teaching experience, she knew that education would be her chosen field.

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Carol Ann Tomlinson’s career as an educator includes 21 years as a public school teacher, 12 years as a program administrator of special services for struggling and advanced learners. She was Virginia’s Teacher of the Year in 1974. More recently, she has been a faculty member at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, where she is currently William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy.

Carol is a reviewer for eight journals and is author of over 200 articles, book chapters, books, and other professional development materials. For ASCD, she has authored several books including How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-ability Classrooms and The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of all Learners and professional inquiry kit on differentiation. Recently, she co-authored a book with Jay McTighe titled Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids and with Kay Brimijoin and Lane Narvaez co-authored The Differentiated School: Making Revolutionary Change for Teaching and Learning. For Corwin Press, she is co-author of The Parallel Curriculum Model: A Design to Develop High Potential and Challenge High Ability Learners. Carol’s books on differentiation have been translated into 12 languages. She works throughout the U. S. and abroad with teachers whose goal is to develop more responsive heterogeneous classrooms (retrieved 8/8/11, www.caroltomlinson.com).

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.