Differentiation Isn’t Perfect — But It Can Work

Differentiated instruction inspires love in some educators and loathing in others. In a recent editorial for Education Week, educational consultant James Delisle came down firmly on the loathing side. He said that “differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.”

Let’s set passions aside for a moment and address two important questions. Does differentiation work for students? And is there any way that teachers can implement it while maintaining their sanity?

Image via Flickr by Lexie Flickinger

Image via Flickr by Lexie Flickinger

One-Size-Fits-All Education is Falling Short

The typical teacher has 30 students with abilities that span multiple grade levels. Can we expect them all to be appropriately challenged by the same textbook?

In his editorial, Delisle argues that schools would do better to place students in homogeneous classrooms based on ability.

Eileen Murphy Buckley, the former Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Chicago Public Schools and the founder of ThinkCERCA.com, is a proponent of differentiated instruction. She agrees with Delisle that homogeneous groups benefit high-achieving students, but points out that struggling students often fare worse when separated from peers. Indeed, a University of Chicago study has shown that when algebra students are grouped by ability, high-level students soar, while low-level students sink further. In fact, putting students into the same class and giving the same assignments can be boring for the higher level students, and utterly bewildering to lower-level students. Buckley suggests that we imagine we are a struggling student seated beside a gifted student. A teacher tells all of us to read a passage and then asks a question about it. The high-achieving student is likely to finish reading first and raise a hand.

“They raise their hand, and they reiterate everything that I, low-level reader, thought I gleaned,” Buckley says. “And pointed out things that I’d never heard of, used words that I’d never been exposed to, and understand it way better than me. Well, I’m not going to raise my hand now.”

When students at vastly different levels are given the same material, teachers spend a large portion of their time trying to reach struggling students. In a survey by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 86 percent of teachers said that students deserve an equal amount of one-on-one attention from the teacher regardless of ability. Yet, 60 percent of teachers said that academically struggling students were the top priority at their school. Only 23 percent of teachers said that academically advanced students were a priority.

Those numbers suggest that most teachers recognize the need for differentiated instruction. Implementation is the problem. This is a reality echoed in Delisle’s Education Week article, in which he cites a 2011 Education Next article that says very few teachers were using differentiated instruction even after they received professional development and coaching. And yet the article goes on to describe a school that has successfully implemented differentiated instruction and has seen students at all levels excel. So, differentiated instruction can work, but its success might depend on taking a whole-school approach.

Differentiated Instruction Needs to be Engaging — for Teachers and Students

If customized learning is so important, why not send students off to learn on their own private platforms? Because the social aspect of school is important.

“There’s a reason that we come to physically the same place, and that is for social and collaborative learning,” Buckley says. “Otherwise, we could just say, ‘OK, everyone’s getting the same curriculum, and we’re going to pipe it into your house by TV or computer.’”

Students benefit from the social aspect of school when they are all engaged in discussion and questioning. Buckley asks that we think about the best teacher we’ve ever had.

“The thing about the teacher that made them great, more often than not, was their ability to engage everybody in the room,” Buckley says.

In the past, Buckley says, differentiated instruction has often been done based on Lexile level, which hasn’t proven to be the most effective method. Students were given the same text written at different levels, so advanced readers might have the original text while low-level readers had a version with shorter words. This was even done with Shakespeare. And, clearly, a lot is lost when Shakespeare is rewritten.

This approach gets in the way of that crucial element of engagement, Buckley says, because it’s hard for teachers to muster enthusiasm about a re-written version of their favorite text.

“They actually probably like the subject that they teach and are really motivated by getting kids to like that subject,” Buckley says.

A successful curriculum needs to harness that enthusiasm, Buckley says, but also needs to place a reasonable level of demand on teachers teachers, given their full presentation day, grading papers, searching for texts, and aligning to standards.

Better Methods of Differentiated Instruction Are in the Works

Buckley sees technology as the answer for differentiated instruction, but not technology as it has been used in the past. Teachers need more than to be handed laptops or tablets with little guidance on how to incorporate them in lessons, she says. They need ready-made curriculum for reading and writing, and she expects that technology entrepreneurs, not school administrators, will solve the differentiation problem.

Buckley explains this kind of differentiated curriculum that avoids rewrites by describing a lesson on artificial intelligence. Students would receive reading materials based on ability. One group of students would be given an article on robots caring for the elderly. Another would read about driverless cars, another about drones, and another about robotic graders used for essays on tests. Each group of students would bring something different to the class conversation about how far machines should go in our lives rather than some students reading a lesser version of the same text.

The Education Next article describes another approach used at Piney Branch Elementary School in Takoma Park, Maryland. The students in each classroom are representative of the school as a whole, a mix of incomes and races. For reading, children are broken into small groups based on ability, but the groups remain fluid, with children able to move up when they make big gains. Teachers use supplementary programs such as Junior Great Books and Jacob’s Ladder for the highest achieving students. Children are divided into separate classes for math but remain together for all of their other subjects. Test scores have improved across-the-board for the students, and they remain with a heterogeneous group for most of the day.

Delisle, Buckley, and a range of other educators agree that differentiation works best when the whole school uses the same methods. But what about the teacher who wants to start differentiation now?

Simple Tools to Introduce Differentiated Instruction to Your Class

  1. Look for ways to build intrinsic motivation with differentiation. Instead of having every student write an essay on the same topic, how about letting the students choose? That struggling reader might become more motivated if he gets to write about his favorite sport.
  2. Give students different ways to process a lesson. Some might choose to journal about a reading assignment, while others form a literature circle.
  3. Go all-in with ThinkCERCA or another program that provides a full curriculum. Teachers have had the most success with differentiated instruction when they can get their whole school to commit to the same philosophy.
  4. Use Power My Learning or other online sites that provide free customization for academic games and content. Some even tie the content to Common Core standards.
  5. Look for new ways to scaffold a lesson. Try thinking aloud as you solve a problem or read a text, or show students a finished model of the project they are going to work on.
  6. There are apps galore for differentiation. Dragon Dictation transcribes what students say, making it a good tool for ELL and special needs students. It’s also handy for verbal note-taking. And it’s free!