In the middle schools where I have taught, differentiated instruction is understood in multiple ways. The veteran educators tend to call it a “new name for the same old things.” Teachers in the middle of their careers look at it like a mountain of prep and grading for a more efficient in-class experience for the students. The young and bright-eyed educators come into the field with the idea that differentiation equals “everything all the time.”
Each group has a point. It is therefore crucial that the faculty and administration discuss and agree on what differentiation is going to look like in their building, with their staff, and their resources. Otherwise, differentiation risks becoming yet another washed-up idea.
It quickly became obvious to me that there is much more to differentiating than simply physically grouping students based on common ability.
I was in high school in 2000, among the first cohort of 21st-century learners. A teacher, who I otherwise loved, seated his class based on the students’ marking-period grades. Students with the lowest grades sat in the front row beside his desk. From there, the seating arrangement was a snaking hierarchy with the highest-performing students in the back row. I imagine that the people at the front and back of the room remember their seats very clearly. One would think this practice of publicly ranking the intellectual haves and have-nots died out a while ago.
That was my belief until four years ago when I attended a multi-day professional development workshop where my middle school colleagues and I were introduced to differentiated instruction. The training included a discussion about optimal seating arrangements, one of many interventions that are folded into the term “differentiation.” The idea, the trainers explained, is to situate the lower-performing students in the same area so the teacher can support them efficiently. But when I put that seating arrangement into practice during an Of Mice and Men unit, one group labeled themselves “the Lennie group,” after Steinbeck’s unforgettable character with an intellectual disability.
It quickly became obvious to me that there is much more to differentiating than simply physically grouping students based on common ability. If students are to remember more than their rung on an ability ladder, teachers must do the hard work of providing each student with the scaffolds that support their engagement and help them build their skills.
There is not an intervention available that I will not implement for one of my 8th grade students, if needed. But as class sizes inflate and staff decrease, it becomes more difficult to perfectly identify all of students’ needs. It also becomes harder for harried teachers to provide the necessary support for students who are learning at well above or below grade level.
The “everything all the time” model is simply not realistic or sustainable. Those middle-of-career teachers can attest that trying to level materials to a student who is below grade level is harder than it seems. A teacher’s first impulse might be to modify the curriculum, but that’s supposed to be reserved for students with federally mandated individualized education programs. Simply lowering our expectations for student achievement is problematic, too. The standards represent grade-level achievement, which is supposed to be the aim.
Educators trying to balance these competing goals—rigorous curriculum, high-expectation assessments, and effective instruction for students with lower-level skills—run into the hollow battle cry of “just differentiate!” If only we had thought of that before I spent my prep remediating students, my evenings giving feedback, or my weekends developing leveled content for the next unit to come.
Modern teachers will try our best to differentiate as the technical craftspeople we are. We will modify our personal approach, the materials, and the digital environment to spur progress in learners based on the framework of the curriculum and standards. We will, somehow, sand away at the mountains of grading and prep.
Differentiation is not supposed to equal remediation, however. It is not reading support. It is not English-language-learner support. It is not an IEP. It is not an even trade for a classroom assistant. Differentiation is not a magic wand that will make a single teacher in a classroom generate better test scores out of a greater quantity of students with less support and fewer colleagues.
The digital age has resulted in a treasure trove of interventions and techniques, and differentiation is an aggregation of some of the best iterations of small-group instruction. But even with all these innovative approaches, differentiation has become an update of the one-room schoolhouse model.
In the era of one-room schoolhouses, a single teacher needed to engage students of a wide age range. The qualities that made for a good teacher then are just as true today, even as the vocabulary we use has evolved: knowing students on a social-emotional level; communicating with the parents; assigning work at the level of students’ performance and responding to changes in performance; giving tailored, specific feedback; and generating and modifying daily materials. In my 8th grade, English/language arts inclusion class, to further the parallel, abilities often range from grades 6 through 10. Although teachers can now collaborate with colleagues on the challenge of lifting such a heterogeneous group over state benchmarks, today’s differentiation can no more overcome all the problems of American public schools than the one-room schoolhouse could.
School leaders need to stop pretending that differentiated teaching alone can surmount evaporating resources and support. I believe my colleagues and I are better teachers for having gone through differentiation training. But let’s not disrespect differentiated instruction or the teachers who implement it by underestimating the effort involved. Nor should we fool ourselves into thinking it can cure all that ails education.
A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as What Differentiated Instruction Is Not