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Education Letter to the Editor

When Pedagogical Misinformation Trumps Reason

November 12, 2010 5 min read
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To the Editor:

In a recent Commentary (“When Pedagogic Fads Trump Priorities,” Sept. 27, 2010), Mike Schmoker recounted his memory of an exchange he had with “the architect of a hugely popular innovation.” The “architect” he refers to is me. My recollection of our exchange differs. It is not the case that I “finally” told him there was no solid research to support Differentiated Instruction. Even at that relatively early period of my published work with the differentiation model, there was substantial research to support it. His stance, at the time, was that the only research that really mattered was school-based data from sites implementing the model—not the scholarly research I suggested.

While I disagreed (and still do) that scholarly research is useless, I understood what he appeared to be seeking. Neither I nor others were yet systematically collecting site-based information from schools using differentiation. I have since done so, and written about it in sources that are easy to find for anyone who cares to learn about this model.

That two individuals reconstruct an e-mail exchange from several years ago with different perspectives is not important. Our differences in our perceptions about the effectiveness of the differentiation model, however, are.

I often receive e-mails asking whether student achievement scores will go up if teachers differentiate instruction. My response is always the same: There is no magic word in education, including differentiation, that will save us. Students achieve when teachers diligently adhere to the four baseline elements of effective teaching that I have long called the non-negotiables of defensible differentiation: (1) a learning environment that provides high challenge and support; (2) quality curriculum that emphasizes deep understanding of content and ensures that both teachers and students recognize what is essential for students to know, understand, and do; (3) formative assessment that allows teachers to know where students are relative to essential outcomes; and (4) adapting instruction, using the formative-assessment data, to ensure maximum success of each learner.

Oddly, it appears that Mr. Schmoker holds a similar belief—or at least he seems to be talking about something very similar when he writes, “Good lessons start with a clear curriculum-based objective and assessment, followed by multiple cycles of instruction, guided practice, checks for understanding(the soul of a good lesson), and ongoing adjustments to instruction.” For a professional who is rendering an opinion for the public about an instructional model, Mr. Schmoker shows a lack of understanding about the basic tenets of the model he is criticizing that is both puzzling and disturbing.

He paints a picture of differentiation that is chaotic, counterintuitive, and implemented apart from any knowledge of effective curriculum and instruction. My colleague David A. Sousa (who joins me in writing this letter) and I don’t doubt that he has witnessed these aberrations. We have also seen such teaching and find it troubling. But we have also witnessed administrators and teachers working in a principle-guided, consistent, and coherent way to ensure that the model is implemented with fidelity. That some school leaders and teachers engage in an educational approach with little or no understanding of the model they claim to use is regrettable and damaging.

To clarify a few of the key attributes of the model that Mr. Schmoker would rather criticize than understand, we offer the following explanation:

• The model of differentiation we support is not a single entity, a particular strategy, or a set of strategies. It is a series of guidelines for increasing the likelihood that each student has an opportunity for academic success.

• The model is not a synonym for learning styles (which is in itself just a piece of the model); and we agree with experts who counsel that teachers should not screen and categorize students as a particular “type” of learner, but rather help the students understand themselves as learners so that they can make better learning choices.

• Our model of differentiation synthesizes best practices which are most often research-based.

• There is obviously no research to support a frantically assembled collection of worksheets and coloring exercises. By contrast, abundant empirical research and research from neuroscience support the assertion that students learn when work is appropriately challenging for them, and conversely, do not learn when work is consistently too easy or too hard; in other words, student readiness matters. Research also shows that students learn better when they find work personally relevant and engaging; in other words, student interest matters. The third element of the model, learning profile, represents research evidence on how gender, culture, intelligence preference, and learning style may impact learning. While some experts question the concept of learning style, other skilled researchers who have recently studied available data on the topic conclude that the jury is still out on its validity. Many experts caution, as do we, that using instruments lacking in validity and reliability to categorize individuals as having a particular learning style is unwarranted.

• There is a great deal of research from psychology and applied developmental science indicating that teacher-student connections are critical to student success in the classroom.

• Among the powerful research-based strategies highly praised by John Hattie, whom Mr. Schmoker cites as an expert who debunks differentiation, are a number of practices central to the model of differentiation we use, including: small-group learning, challenging goals, cooperative vs. competitive learning, classroom cohesion, not labeling students, positive teacher-student relationships, use of formative evaluation, and classroom clarity about goals and content.

• At least 15 studies in the last few years find that the differentiation model has a positive effect on student outcomes. Educational neuroscience is revealing more about how the brain learns, including that the brain of today’s student has different experiences than the brain of students from just a decade ago.

The reason differentiation is “one of the most widely adopted orthodoxies of our time” is not because teachers and administrators will seize on any fad that comes along. It has evolved because even good one-size-fits-all instruction is unsuccessful in reaching the broad spectrum of students in today’s classrooms. An informed critique of an effective teaching model could be useful in refining and moving our collective understanding forward. A trash-and-burn approach to a model, which the “expert critic” has apparently not studied in any depth, reflects the shallow practice he condemns.

Carol Tomlinson

University of Virginia

Charlottesville, Va.

David A. Sousa

Palm Beach, Fla.

Mr. Sousa is a consultant in educational neuroscience and the author of How the Brain Learns.

A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as When Pedagogical Misinformation Trumps Reason

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