Monday, October 22, 2007

Why Does Differentiation Matter?

Most of us remember learning in classrooms where everyone was doing the same thing at the same time. We turned out okay, so why should our teaching today be any different?

When I was growing up my grandmother entertained me with stories of her school experiences in a one-room schoolhouse in North Dakota. She described Norman Rockwell-esque scenes of trudging through snow to class and huddling around the potbelly stove while the teacher read stories and the class performed plays. What I could never wrap my mind around was the idea of all these kids, babies through teenagers, learning from just one teacher. I always asked my grandmother how it was possible for all the students to do the same thing in her school when they were at such different ages. She always said, "they didn't."

My grandmother went to a school highly specialized in the art of differentiated instruction, and that was nearly a century ago. Today, what seemed like the unfortunate instructional necessity of poor rural schoolhouses is actually being heralded as the best way to help all children learn.

What I didn't realize as a kid listening to my grandmother's magical school stories is that students actually shouldn't all have been doing the same thing in my classes either.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that every human being is different and so it logically follows that we can't possibly all learn the same way. But our schools today are designed under the false premise that we do all learn in roughly the same way. If they acknowledge difference at all it's usually through ability grouping or tracking so "gifted" and "struggling" students are in separate classes. Within these classes there will still be a wide range of difference in student interest, ability, and learning style - but generally speaking teachers are expected to teach everyone the same way.

Teaching as the teacher did in that one-room schoolhouse in North Dakota is a lot of work. It requires knowing each student intimately for her strengths and her weaknesses and devising an instructional plan tailored specifically to that child's needs. In my grandmother's school you had 14-year-olds learning to read next to 9-year-olds writing essays because depending on your parents' occupation you might be well behind your peers thanks to many months of the year spent working the fields.

The teacher was expected to take each student as he or she came - and work to bring everyone up from where they were. In essence, to help each student achieve his or her potential. What if that were the goal of classrooms today instead of everyone achieving some generic measure of achievement as determined by an end-of-grade standardized test?

The good news is, we can make that our goal even in the midst of so much emphasis on standardized tests. If we are really working to help each student in our class meet his or her full potential then chances are pretty good they'll meet the state's standards of achievement in the process. (When you consider the fact that students need to get around 50% of the questions right on standardized tests in DC to be considered "proficient" it's rather clear that our expectations of children in this city could use a boost.)

Differentiated Instruction matters because the life of each child in our care matters and sacrificing even one child in the name of efficiency seems unacceptable when we consider the long term ramifications of that decision.

If the slow reader in 1st grade gets passed along to second grade without the support he needs we all know how that cycle goes - we end up with entire high school classrooms filled with 18-year-olds reading at an elementary level. Those 18-year-olds graduate (if they're tenacious) without the skills to get further education and, unless they're particularly industrious, will be limited to low-paying jobs and a lifetime of struggle to make ends meet in an increasingly expensive society.

We all know these students. Whatever grade you teach you probably have more than one in your class. And when you consider the needs of everyone else in there, it seems impossible to find the time to help each and every student move from where they are to where they need to be. But this is the incredible responsibility and opportunity of the teacher. If you wanted to mass produce something every day, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but you probably chose the wrong profession.

Most of us are not teaching in one-room school houses today, but we are still teaching in single classrooms that house tremendous diversity. When confronted with the feeling that teaching to all those needs is impossible it's helpful for me to remember what was possible a decade ago in my grandmother's school.

Differentiated Instruction isn't some newfangled teaching fad - it's just plain good old-fashioned teaching and it's what every student deserves.

-Jenna Fournel

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