Differentiated Instruction, Part III

SSFS adopted “differentiated instruction” as its faculty professional development theme this year.  My first two blogs about differentiated instruction (DI) outlined the rationale and merits of this instructional approach. In this third part of a multi-part blogapalooza , I share some criticisms of differentiated instruction.  If you have not read the first two posts, I urge you to start there.

Readers should know that I’m making a distinction between “formal DI,” (my phraseology) where most every lesson is structured around different pathways for different groups of children, and “informal DI,” a looser form where a series of lessons on a topic, over time, incorporate a variety of learning modalities and assessment strategies, illuminated by the teacher’s understanding of the class.  The first and most common concern about formal DI shared by educators is the burden on the teacher – each lesson becomes many lessons, with a proportionate increase in demand on time for lesson preparation.  No doubt the planning gets easier with experience because of, for example, the ability to draw on past design work. However, regular, formal DI ends up being a multiplier of 2 or 3 in the time needed for preparation. If DI is supposed to be highly situational – each teacher designs each lesson around the needs of this year’s students, focused on this day’s lesson, on each day, in response to assessment data and changing student needs, then a steady diet of DI can be a genuinely daunting mountain to climb.  Smaller class sizes are not a helpful factor in mitigating the demands on a teacher’s preparation time, since constructing a lesson/activity for three students is more or less the same task as preparing one for 35. Full-time teachers already spend considerable time outside of school hours to prepare, grade, communicate with parents, etc., so the increased demand on teacher time should not be lightly disregarded. There must be empirical truth to this: as I have talked with many administrative colleagues, who have collectively observed hundreds of teachers in diverse public, parochial, and independent educational settings, it is a challenge to find any teacher who exemplifies the formal differentiated instruction model on a daily basis.

Setting this practical concern aside, however, there are pedagogical reasons to analyze DI with a critical eye.  

Should it be the goal of a teacher to get every student to accomplish the same outcomes – to master the same skills and understand the same material, by the end of the year? Isn’t this what curriculum standards and a “clearly articulated set of learning outcomes” are supposed to accomplish? If so, then there is inherent dissonance between formal DI and accomplishing common endpoint goals. In reality, students learn different things from different classroom activities, so steering children down different paths works against accomplishing a unified curriculum. Sometimes DI is misunderstood as a way to “track” students in the same classroom, providing different levels of academic challenge for different groups of students. If the DI structure presents different students with work of varying levels of challenge (simplistically: a lower hurdle for the struggling student and a higher hurdle for the accelerated student), then over time this tends to exacerbate the differences in the class. A student who is struggling is likely to stay behind because she/he is provided a curriculum that remains behind other students, unless supplemental remediation is injected. This can be particularly problematic with skills students need in order to progress to the next level in a sequence. If a student ends the school year 20% behind his typical peers, or is missing some key skills that other students have mastered, then the problem is compounded for the following year. In short, while the goal of DI is to create an inclusive classroom, it can exacerbate the differences between students if the differentiation allows for differences in student skill levels or rates of achieving mastery. In the more sequential subjects of math or language, the approach becomes unwieldy over time.

In the context of a college preparatory curriculum such as SSFS, students need to move along, from year to year, with an established set of skills, to be ready for the demands of college preparatory courses in high school, and college demands afterward.  If DI is to work, it must be effective in keeping students more or less “on track.”
A different criticism references the heart of the educational process. There is some research, and a lot of media attention, focused on neurological diversity – it is common now to say, as a fait accompli, some students learn visually, some students learn kinesthetically, and others aurally. This perspective drives much of the dialogue in education today – instruction, lesson design, classroom use of technology, teacher training, etc. However, there are voices in the room that seek to remind us that, as different as students are from each other, they are much more alike than they are different. Check out, for example, the comments of UVA Psychology professor Daniel Willingham in this YouTube segment.  While some students may have a tendency to learn more easily through a particular modality, in fact human learning is pretty consistent from person to person. Put another way, while there is variation in learning styles from student to student, there is much about the learning process that is common to all humans.

Moreover, learning is inherently a multi-sensory process.  Every student is constantly using combinations of skills. Mel Levine, in the introduction of his excellent book on meeting the needs of students with learning disabilities, Educational Care, says “Any learning task that a child is asked to complete in school demands the coordination of multiple behaviors, skills, and brain functions… every academic task represents a collaboration between multiple brain (neurodevelopmental) functions, acquired skills, and behaviors.” He goes on to cite an example – a child who “simply” writes her own name accomplishes the task by integrating several neuromuscular functions, several forms of memory, attention, and self-monitoring.  Human language, in general, is a complex neurological construct of visual, auditory, mnemonic, abstract, and motor skills. If one understands that learning is always multisensory, and that all students need to develop all of these skills/modalities in order to be best prepared for their futures, then one could surmise that skewing the learning process only towards an individual student’s strengths (what they are already good at) might be exactly the wrong thing to do. Instead, each student should work in a mixture of modes and, perhaps, particularly on her/his areas of weakness, while certainly employing known strengths to support the process.  

Where does all this lead the discussion of differentiated instruction? My objective with this post is not to undermine the very real merits of DI, but instead paint a realistic picture of the complex terrain of student learning and instruction. Educators and parents cannot think of DI as a learning panacea.

Next time:  Some thoughts about Universal Design and some conclusions about DI at SSFS.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>