Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why I will no longer work to differentiate instruction!

I used to be a big fan of differentiated instruction.  It all came together for me when I learned about the Schoolwide Enrichment Model at ConFratute and then helped schools use Renzulli Learning which is a terrific differentiation machine.  A couple years later Marc Prensky’s book Teaching Digital Natives---Partnering for Real Learning was released and he even acknowledged me in it!!  This also became part of the differentiation game to me.  I began speaking and writing about differentiated instruction more and more and explaining to teachers that this really wasn’t that hard.  Especially if we focused on student centered learning like the teachers I wrote about in my post, Student Driven Learning = Passion-Based Classrooms.

I realized that when teachers gave up control an empowered students to use the tools they want and meet learning goals in the way they choose, then true differentiation could begin and it wasn’t all on the shoulders of the teacher to figure out how to do this.  So you might be wondering why, if I’m such a big fan of differentiated instruction, I have decided it’s not something I am willing to do any longer. 

It was Tom Welch who reached out and asked me to join him in abandoning the term differentiating "instruction". He explained, it this way:
What we really need to help occur in classroom is differentiated "learning". This accomplishes the student ownership of the learning, allows for a passion-driven approach, shifts the responsibility for the learning to the learner (where it belongs) and changes the teachers role to what you consistently advocate. There also also many other reasons -- like the elimination of the typical classroom culture of dependency, and the way this allows learning to go viral by removing artificial timelines that ignore individual learner needs, passions and differences.

He goes on to recognize that many teachers groan when anyone talks about differentiated instruction because it just makes them feel inadequate. He shares however, that when he speaks about differentiated learning, and shares the way this shifts responsibility, etc, they begin to look at many elements of the learning process in a different way. 

Tom is right!  The conversation must evolve from “Differentiating Instruction” to “Differentiating Learning.” Our students will thank us!


  1. I love this idea and plan to steal it. I think too often we think of differentiation as one more mechanical technique to add to our repertoires. If we simply create tireed lessons and give students a choice of PowerPoint templates for their book report, we are differentiating.

    I have been on a mission to find ways to get educators to think of students s individuals and not as collections of labels and categories (gifted, autistic, ELL, Title I, proficient, basic, straight A's, etc.). This may help. Thanks.

  2. This is an excellent shift in thinking and one that I am going to share with the teachers at my school. While many believe that playing "wordsmith" with educational terms doesn't accomplish any goals, I think this shift is essential in helping everyone see where the responsibility and focus should be placed. On the students at the center during their personal learning!

    Great post! I'll help spread the word and shift our thinking!

  3. Excellent. I used the words 'differentiated instruction' just the other day and it just didn't feel right as it wasn't 'instruction' I was differentiating, but I guess it was the way in which I allowed the children to working with a partner (it just so happened to be). Thank you!

  4. You have nailed it right on the head. I am constantly applying this with the students that I tutor by allowing them to choose and find the books that they want to read. I love that I can do this for them.

  5. It might just be a matter of semantics, but this sounds a lot like Universal Design for Learning's Multiple means of action and expression. Thank-you for the thoughtful post.

  6. @Buys,

    I think teachers roll their eyes when they hear terms like that too. Sometimes a little semantics make a big difference. When we shift the differentiation from the teacher to the learner, a big weight is taken off the teacher's shoulders and learners are empowered to take ownership of their learning in the ways that work best for them.

  7. Thank you, Lisa. Tom is absolutely right. However, if the teacher is not cognizant of the different learning styles in the class and teaches (i.e. presents information or instructs [yes, teachers should instruct from time to time] with only one [or no] learning style in mind) it makes it more difficult for those differentiated learners to access the information, skill or whatever.

    Especially in the younger grades, where students may not be cognizant of their learning ability, much less their learning style, and have little prior knowledge or experience to build upon, it is the teacher who must produce activities, materials and lessons that allow for all children to learn.

    Yes, even in those early graded learning is the student's responsibility, but if it is fully the student's responsibility, why do schools need teachers? We've been discussing why students need schools, but whether they need schools or not, people -- children and adults -- need teachers. Oh, we might call them mentors or something else, but they are still teachers.

  8. @Deven Black, I'd like to challenge you here and say, yeah, if the teacher knows the learning style that's nice. A teacher I talked to today teaches 180 kids a day. I don’t think he’d find this a realistic challenge. Personally, I went through K-12 and many degrees and no teacher bothered asking and probably felt they didn't have the time or it didn’t matter. They told me what to do and I was supposed to do it in the way they said if I wanted a good grade.

    Though you state elementary students may be too young, I disagree. At schools like those following the schoolwide enrichment model where they value talents, passions, interests, and abilities, they tap into this from the start. I know students have the ability to connect with their learning style, talents, interests, and abilities if this is nourished and allowed to flourish starting in their first year.

    You ask why schools need teachers. They need teachers to provide opportunities, resources, and keep kids safe. Students need teachers to fight for their student’s right to learn. We need teachers to realize they are not the only experts in the room. They are just the oldest and all their students often have more expertise than does the teacher in their areas of interest and that’s okay. At Democracy schools the teachers are the ones that ensure students can pursue the learning they desire…this is very different than teaching. The reality is what students need is to be provided with opportunity, resources, and advocates that result in providing them with the freedom to learn.

  9. Great post. I have always thought that it was a teacher's role to provide a safe learning environment for students to learn. As a teacher I do provide a framework and, yes, I do often begin lessons with some instructions or guides but then it has always been my intention/goal to let the students take ownership of their next steps in learning. It is wonderful when you see the students become involved in something and the work is often amazing.
    This works better in some classes than others however. Many students are very comfortable with the notion that the teacher will tell them what they need to know and they will then "learn it" to pass their test.
    The "learning" goes no deeper than that and the students feel no responsibility to actively engage in their learning or apply it to their "real" lives. It is almost the case that you have to help them unlearn this behaviour and go back to their early childhood where everything was a learning experience. Our NAPLAN testing does nothing to help in this area either.

  10. I'm going to print your quote from Tom Welch and tape it inside my plan book for next year. Then, every week, I will see it and be reminded how to REALLY make it work for my kids.

  11. While learning is differentiated by default, I do think we need to help teachers realize they have some responsibility to make sure every kid in the classroom has a crack at learning. If you are designing lessons to be one sized fits all and are not concerned about pacing or knowledge checks, you are not making sure every student has the ability to access the knowledge and then give it back to you in a way they see fit to demonstrate mastery.

  12. To continue about Devin's learning style comments - actually it's not that hard to have students' learning styles at hand in every classroom. We show schools how to do this. In schools we work with all students take our profile that looks at Dispositions, Modalities, Interests, Talents, Best Environment - then the scores for each class are graphed or charted and are on the wall. Sometimes students also make cards to set on their desks with their learning style info.

    As for differentiated learning - yes, if you have a decentralized classroom with "authentic work" for students to do, it is differentiated by default. We have teachers who say - I have free evenings and weekends now, I don't take work home anymore, the students own their work, etc. And, yes, the teacher becomes the mentor and is free to roam around and really teach!

  13. Marc Ecko discussed adrogogy at this summer's 140edu conference. Here is link to his talk for those interested.