James R. Delisle’s article “Differentiation Doesn’t Work” in Education Week absolutely hit a nerve with me. His statement “differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students” to be honest made me mad.
I agree that differentiation is hard and incredibly difficult in a classroom of mixed ability students. But to say that differentiation is a failure and a joke is ludicrous and I felt like I had been slapped in the face!
Why? Because creative differentiation not only WORKS, but is sometimes the ONLY glue that keeps a classroom running and students achieving more than they ever thought possible. Is it easy? NO! But curriculum that provides creative approaches to education and gives students choices about their education is crucial if students are to be met at their current educational level and then be challenged. In my opinion, this is the very essence of differentiation.
To say that differentiation doesn’t work, is a copout. It’s like saying because some students struggle to read that we should just stop teaching reading. Instead, we have to say that maybe the way we approach differentiation needs to change. Or maybe the expectation that teachers would know how to differentiate needs to change. What I do know is that the traditional model of lecture, take notes and give a test doesn’t work for students if we want them to be the best self that they can be.
Why am I so adamant that differentiation works? Because after spending the last 15+ years in the public school classroom teaching everything from 3rd grade special education Math to 8th grade Reading to 12th grade Economics and a dozen other subjects in between and afterwards, I KNOW that if we want to reach students we have to do things differently. And to be honest, I am tired of always hearing what doesn’t work and that we have such a hard job so woe is me. NO! We have the BEST job! Yes it is hard! Yes, things aren’t always great and sometimes things happen in our classrooms and in our schools that are crap. And sometimes it’s because we have crappy curriculum and no support. But you know what, at the end of the day, I can adapt my crappy (or lack of) curriculum and I can work through times when I feel like I am being sabotaged by administrators. Because my students are worth it!
I could give you some of my real-life tried and true differentiation strategies. For those of you out there that might care, my differentiation strategies are really a blend of differentiation and choice-based learning. What I have learned is that when given options, students will self-differentiate effectively most of the time. I might have to eliminate a few options for the students, but a choice in differentiation strategy creates individual by-in and ultimately yields better results.
But here is the caveat… in order to create this environment, you have to be willing to think outside the box and be willing to give up the worksheet that you made ten years ago! Even harder, the “bundle” that you spent all summer working on has to have embedded alternatives in order to give you the flexibility to reach students. We have to let go of the mindset that things HAVE to be done a certain way or they are failures. Because my gravy, does it really matter what students use to process when working with a manipulative if they master the concept? Does it really teach students to be creative writers if the only poems they are allowed to write are a,b,a,b patterns?
So here are the most common statements against creating individualized lessons and my response.
- “I have 100+ students; I can’t give every student their own assignment.”
- No, but you can create a sheet of options that allow for the different skills students have and their interests. When teaching Agamemnon to around one hundred 9-12 grade theatre arts students, I created a project that allowed for the skill level of students AND their interests. The assignment sheet listed 10 options, like “write a new ending to the play.. 40 points” and “research the Ancient Greek culture and explain the role of the chorus (essay, powerpoint or speech)”.. 50 points as well as stuff like “draw a mask for one of the main characters..10 points.” If there was a basic piece of the assignment that everyone had to complete, I would make that a required element and assign points. Then I would meet with students and they would tell me their plans. Lower achieving students might have to earn 80 points and I would guide them to maybe not do a research paper. On level students would be required to earn 100 points. Yes, this is a time consuming approach. But SO WORTH IT!! Students who didn’t think they could understand a Greek tragedy not only understood it, but were able to adapt the play into a reality tv series and act out a scene!
- My curriculum is bundled and if I do “fun” things I won’t get in the required lessons.
- Why are “fun” things not valued? Why are required lessons boring? Example: when teaching Economics instead of having students take a paper/pencil test on the economic impact of WWII, I gave students three options. 1st option, take the traditional test. 2nd option, create their own version of a ration book that rationed cell phone minutes. Students had to come up with the guidelines for the rationing, how it would work and all of the details that would go into rationing their data/minutes. 3rd option was interviewing someone who lived through this time period and create a report (written/documentary/powerpoint) from this original source. The overwhelmingly majority of the students created a ration book. The hardest and most time consuming option. Even better, these required elements were “fun” to the students.
- I’m not creative.
- Then ASK FOR HELP!!!!! Explain to your students what you want to do and ask them to help you come up with creative options. You would be shocked! Their assignments will be much harder than ones you would come up with. It has been years and years since I taught 3rd grade special education inclusion math. But what I remember the most is that while they were NOT interested in counting blue bears, they created a “store” and counted money and did fractions and everything imaginable in order to get Legos to build with! Blue bears did nothing for them. Legos did.
In the end, I realize that differentiation is hard.
And by definition, my brand of creative choice-based learning with a differentiation approach is probably not classic differentiation. But I’ll take my brand, my students are worth it.
And for the student that is struggling in written expression, being given permission to verbally say his essay into a computer, spell check it and print it and then using his printout to look at, copy in his own hard to read handwriting, his very own legitimate essay, that is a win.
Will he pass the state mandated writing test with this approach? I don’t know.
But what I do know is that by differentiating today, he gained the courage to try next time. Sure, as the teacher, I could have demanded that he write his essay like everyone else. But what would have happened? At best, the student would have turned in something that I could “accommodate” to a 70. At worst, the student would have been reminded that once again, he wasn’t “good” enough.
A lose never translates to a win. And saying that differentiation is a farce is saying that students aren't worth the trouble. Personally, that’s not why I got into education..