During my last blog post, I provided a pretty grim look on the practice of tracking. The sneaky, dark side of tracking is that it makes sense to us; it is easy and comforting to categorize and compartmentalize things in our lives. When we do this, they become more manageable. The thought of a heterogeneously grouped class causes confusion, anxiety, and consternation in the minds of many.
See? Doesn’t that feel better?
In fact, I’ve been met with a lot of push back when talking to others about the research I’ve found regarding tracking and my subsequent proposals for detracking classes—from educators and non-educators alike. It just doesn’t make sense to us. How is it possible to teach a heterogeneous group of students without “teaching to the middle”? In a heterogeneous class, wouldn’t in-class grouping just eventually evolve into a microcosm of the previous problem (instead of tracking on a systematic level, tracking would then occur within the class)?
My answer to this question would be differentiated instruction. This is a common term that floats around in the field of education; even in my graduate program, we were told that we need to have a section in each of our lesson plans for differentiation. Unfortunately, this talk about differentiating was usually limited to students with IEPs (individual educational programs for students that receive special education services). Those are obviously important accommodations to plan for, but it shouldn’t stop there. Every now and then we would be encouraged to differentiate for the different types of intelligences (or cognitive styles), but what this looked like was a mystery to me. It was a checkbox to fill, not the origin of and foundation for planning and instruction. Even as I transitioned from student to teacher, the term differentiation was used with regularity, but how to differentiate was never something anyone really discussed—with me personally or on a faculty-wide level (at least in my admittedly limited experience). Now I’ve learned that differentiated instruction is even more nuanced than I thought it could be before a year ago.
What is differentiated instruction?
Firstly, differentiation is not just a list of strategies used to deliver content. Differentiation requires educators to completely restructure the way we teach, including our planning and delivery of content and experiences for students. By doing this, we are able to make sure that we, from start to finish, are planning in order to meet the needs of all students in our classes. Instead of adding more to our workload, we are restructuring that workload.
Secondly, differentiation puts students first and guides instruction around their needs; we are no longer the person behind the curtain of curriculum creation who makes decisions without taking into account our students’ prior learning, personality, interests, or giftings.
Instead, these are all things that must be considered by educators to ensure that all students are learning. The implication of this, of course, is that we must know our students, and to do this, we have to be intentional about this in our planning.
I do want to address a common fear, which I mentioned earlier: Will we just be tracking within the classroom now? Or will we just be teaching to the middle, neglecting the needs of our higher- and lower-achieving students?
The short answer? No.
The long answer? No; differentiation does not change or create different learning goals for different sets of students. Instead, it establishes the same learning goals and makes them accessible for all students. Good differentiation teaches up. First, plan for the highest-abled students, then scaffold for everyone else. The learning goals are common. The approach is different.
Here’s a helpful analogy: Differentiated instruction is like planning a cross-country trip. If we all start in New York and are trying to get to Los Angeles, the possibilities in terms of routes and methods of getting to the destination are varied. Who will take an airplane? How many layovers will there be? Where? Who will take a train? What route will that train take? What about those of us who will drive? Certainly, it’s a little slower, but we will get there eventually, and depending on our itinerary and the various routes we have to choose from, we may see some amazing things. Eventually, we will all reach our goal—Los Angeles—and we didn’t have to make the destination of the trip different for anyone in the group. We just changed the approach.
This is hard for many teachers. We are used to planning our lessons a certain way, and year after year we find what works for us, and we get into a rhythm. I’ve heard many a teacher complain that they don’t have enough time or that it’s too much work. Before I continue, let me just testify to that.
You don’t have enough time. You don’t get paid enough. It is a lot of work to continually grow as a teacher. And yet, it is our job. When my students aren’t learning, I am not teaching. This single sentence has possibly impacted my mindset the most when it comes to the work I am willing to put in for my students.
I am going to devote the next few posts to explaining how I have approached this in my classroom, and how I have been able to restructure the way I plan my units to make this a reality (a work-in-process type of reality, I will admit). A few of these posts will be helpful ways to structure planning or even ways to learn more about students from the start of the year.
If you would like to know more about differentiated instruction, I want to provide you with some resources I’ve found beneficial. These have been monumental in my approach to differentiation and they are so integrated into my knowledge about differentiation that I would have a hard time citing them in-text. However, I do have them listed below:
- Carol Ann Tomlinson. Yes, her as a person. She has written extensively on differentiated instruction, and I had the pleasure of seeing her speak in the summer of 2016. This particular conference, “Teaching Children in Poverty,” was hosted by Francis Marion University’s Center for Excellence. This is potentially the single most formative professional development I’ve been to, and I highly recommend it for all educators. Much of this information comes from the notes (almost every word she said) during her sessions at the conference. I even emailed her to try to get her to come speak at my school, but because she is amazing and still teaches, she couldn’t make it.
- Differentiation in Middle and High School: Strategies to Engage All Learners by Kristina Doubet and Jessica A. Hockett. BONUS: Carol Ann Tomlinson wrote the forward. I cannot recommend this book enough.