Several years ago, I had a courteous, if troubling, e-mail exchange with the architect of a hugely popular instructional innovation. She had heard that I had been criticizing this approach. (I had.) In a series of e-mails, I explained my reasons, starting with the fact that there was no research or strong evidence to support its widespread adoption. I asked, with increasing importunity, for any such evidence. Only after multiple requests did I finally receive an answer: There was no solid research or school evidence.
The innovation-Differentiated Instruction-went on to become one of the most widely adopted instructional orthodoxies of our time. It claims that students learn best when (despite some semantically creative denial) grouped by ability, as well as by their personal interests and “learning styles.”
I had seen this innovation in action. In every case, it seemed to complicate teachers’ work, requiring them to procure and assemble multiple sets of materials. I saw frustrated teachers trying to provide materials that matched each student’s or group’s presumed ability level, interest, preferred “modality” and learning style. The attempt often devolved into a frantically assembled collection of worksheets, coloring exercises, and specious “kinesthetic” activities. And it dumbed down instruction: In English, “creative” students made things or drew pictures; “analytical” students got to read and write.
In these ways, Differentiated Instruction, or DI, corrupted both curriculum and effective instruction. With so many groups to teach, instructors found it almost impossible to provide sustained, properly executed lessons for every child or group-and in a single class period. It profoundly impeded the teacher’s ability to incorporate those protean, decades-old elements of a good lesson which have a titanic impact on learning, even in mixed-ability classrooms (more on this in a moment).
When I shared these reasons with educators, many were glad to hear their suspicions affirmed. They had often been required to integrate DI into all their lessons-against their best instincts-as the program morphed, without any reliable evidence of its effectiveness, into established orthodoxy. Others, however, were angered by any criticism of DI. Their reactions stopped some of my presentations dead in their tracks. These educators, and their districts, had invested enormous amounts of time, treasure, and hope in this pedagogical approach.
We now have evidence that the investment in DI, despite the hype and priority it received, was never fully warranted. It is on no list, short or long, of the most effective educational actions or interventions. Several recent reviews of research by prominent scholars in the field demonstrate that the concept has been running largely on enthusiasm and a certain superficial logic. As Bryan Goodwin of Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, or MCREL, has written, there is “no empirical research” whatsoever for schools to adopt DI if they wish to avail themselves of the best ways to promote learning or close achievement gaps. Literally hundreds of studies confirm this. In fact, the very notion that DI put so much stock in-that every student has a distinct learning style or “modality” and must be taught accordingly-has been roundly debunked by New Zealand’s John Hattie and the University of Virginia’s Daniel T. Willingham, both education researchers of the first rank.
Of course, Differentiated Instruction is only one among many prominent detours American education has taken, none more pernicious than the chop-logic and excesses of what is now being advocated in the name of “21st-century education” or the simplistic requirement for teachers to mindlessly “incorporate technology” into their lessons-as though that will rescue poor instructional plans from failure.
What, then, should be our priorities? I would contend that we already know them. They are essential to an education for the 21st century, but are in fact old friends. Three simple things matter more than all else if we want better schools.
First, we need coherent, content-rich guaranteed curriculum-that is, a curriculum which ensures that the actual intellectual skills and subject matter of a course don’t depend on which teacher a student happens to get. Such a curriculum need not be perfect, and it should make some allowances for individual teachers’ preferences. In a majority of schools, we do not yet have such curricula, even though this may have more impact on learning than any other factor.
Second-and just as important-we need to ensure that students read, write, and discuss, in the analytic and argumentative modes, for hundreds of hours per school year, across the curriculum. We aren’t even close to that now. All students should be reading deeply, discussing, arguing, and writing about what they read every day in multiple courses. We can do this: Consider that students spend about 1,000 hours per year in school.
Third, we need to honor, beyond lip service, the nearly half-century-old model for good lessons that all of us know, but so few consistently implement (except, notably, when being formally evaluated).
The consistent delivery of lessons that include multiple checks for understanding may be the most powerful, cost-effective action we can take to ensure learning.
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. Thanks to the British educator Dylan Wiliam and others, we now know that the consistent delivery of lessons that include multiple checks for understanding may be the most powerful, cost-effective action we can take to ensure learning. Solid research demonstrates that students learn as much as four times as quickly from such lessons.
Nothing rivals these three considerations. Mountains of evidence proclaim their centrality. They should, therefore, be education’s near-exclusive focus, our highest priority for at least a period of years-or until they are satisfactorily and routinely implemented. Then we can innovate-judiciously-starting with pilots and sensible monitoring before we expand promiscuously on the basis of superficial appeal.
For decades, we have put novelty and the false god of innovation above our most obvious, proven priorities. If we gave these priorities the chance they deserve, we would achieve perhaps the most swift and dramatic progress toward improvement in our history. We could make breathtaking strides toward ensuring a high quality of education for all.
A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 2010 edition of Education Week as When Pedagogic Fads Trump Priorities