A Look at the Modern Notions of Differentiated Curriculum and Instruction
I wish there were easy answers to educational problems. But such panaceas (for that is usually what easy answers are), while often served up in journals and websites, usually fail in practice. When one human seeks to teach another, complexities abound. But maybe not as many problems exist as we are wont to create. Modern educational parlance bandies about theories regarding the unique differences of each student. This is the modern franchise in education called, “differentiation.” The call is for every teacher to meet every student “where they are.” On the surface, this is sound advice. Trying to meet someone where they are not is frustrating to say the least.
In this blog post I am going to try and limit myself to highlight the questions and concepts behind this large discussion. This does not purport to be an in-depth look at the issue. But I find in my own educational journey that the concept cannot be avoided, so some conversation maybe helpful. I will limit my overview to the problem, the proposed solution of “differentiation” and how it can be seen both in a macro and micro form.
Differentiation in education has been defined by one its main advocates as:
“…a teacher’s reacting responsively to a learner’s needs. A teacher who is differentiating understands a student’s needs to express humor, or work with a group, or have additional teaching on a particular skill, or delve more deeply into a particular topic, or have guided help with a reading passage—and the teacher responds actively and positively to that need. Differentiation is simply attending to the learning needs of a particular student or small group of students rather than the more typical pattern of teaching the class as though all individuals in it were basically alike.”[i]
This concept came from within the Progressive educational reforms of Constructivism. Amy Benjamin noted this in her early work on this concept:
“The theory that guides differentiation is constructivism: the belief that learning happens when the learner makes meaning out of information. That may sound too self-evident to deserve mention. Of course, learning involves making meaning out of information. What else would learning involve? Well, if you’ve ever seen a kid memorize definitions for a list of “vocabulary words” without having the slightest idea of, nor any intention of learning, how to use those words in context, then you know what learning is not: We do not know the meaning of a word, the significance of a historical event, or the applications of a math process just because we have memorized a set of words.”[ii]
Every educational act comes from some philosophical conclusion, implicit or explicit. Of course, every teacher wants to every student to understand what is being taught. But just how different is every learner? The old discussion in Western Civilization about the nature of the One and the Many is really what is being considered in this specific theory. Is every student so unique that no generalizations are helpful? Should all students be held up to universal standards of the True, Good, and Beautiful (the notion of One ultimate standard), or should they each be taught to be so unique as to constitute a loose collection of individuals (the notion of the Many)? Let us not fall for a bifurcation here, because the wisest course of action seems to be both.
If education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue, which it is, then the pursuit of true wisdom and virtue has both a unifying (harmonizing) principle to it, as well as one that ennobles the individual as a person, unique and singular even as he is a part of humanity. The traditional approach has been to preserve the best of the past in the current generation (through education) so that both the One and the Many are able to flourish. The more progressive approach, running through Dewey and Piaget, came to emphasize the Many over the One, rejecting the idea that there was One reality in preference for multiple meanings derived through personal experience and introspection.
I have always benefited from Blessed John Paul II’s take on this issue: “The segmentation of knowledge, with its splintered approach to truth and consequent fragmentation of meaning, keeps people from coming to an interior unity.”[iii] He believed the Many are best served in the One, Who is Christ. Again, this is not to pit one against the other, or to state that either is necessarily “bad” but rather that the fulfillment of both the One and the Many is a complex and difficult task.
So this brings us back to the roots of the Differentiation solution. If every student has to construct their own meaning out of disparate facts (create their own narrative for reality, if you will) then the teacher must adjust instruction and publishers must produce materials that each student can use in unique ways for their “original work.” In essence, as JP2 was saying, we necessarily fragment knowledge, and students who gain that knowledge, into disparate individualities, each with their own unique take on reality. But if, instead, all students share a great more in common than differing in unique individuality, the teacher uses these commonalities to the learner’s advantage. But this theory has been generalized enough. Let us get more specific to the classroom.
How do we meet the student where he is? And where do we take him from there? If education is in fact an act of leading, as the Latin educare (to lead out) implies, then who is leading and to where? Newish ideas of differentiation seem to place the student as leader in the classroom, being the one who dictates how the teacher is to teach. If the student seems to best make meaning out of auditory queues, then let the ears abound. But if he is graphically oriented, then images take center stage. I understand the compulsion here. The teacher’s main task is determining the needs of the student and then meeting them. But at this very point of such strong sounding pedagogy, failure is found.
I will keep this short by asking just a few questions. How does the teacher’s own learning bias affect this theory? Can a “spatial” teacher effectively teach a kinesthetic learner? How does adjusting the instruction to the learning style prepare a child to become an adult, where such adjustment will not occur? Can all instruction fit the various learning styles, or by adhering to this theory are we necessarily making certain areas of study outside the scope of certain learning styles? I could go on, but I will end with a brief discussion of my main concern about any theory that over emphasizes the Many.
Returning again to the concept that JP2 was developing, if the goal of wisdom and virtue is harmony with the world and its Creator, then education should be leading the teacher and learner toward that harmony, or unity. To say it simply, the Many should be more and more becoming the One, in Christ. Real learning is bringing together disparate “facts” into one complete and unified cosmology (vision of the created order). In meeting the student where they are, it is to bring them (and myself, as teacher) to unity with the One that matters: Christ. The goal is not to leave everyone in their own personal place, but to bring everyone to the place of unity and harmony. It fascinates me that in pursuing macro differentiation, we have may have produced a problem much bigger: a disunified and discordant society.
And at this point, I think I can point out the solution for the problem given. I am not sure if a free and pluralistic society can actually obtain enough commonality or One-ness to bring about the harmony I am setting up as the goal here, but we should come much closer than we currently seem to be headed.
To be sure, students come into our classrooms today with less in common than perhaps was true a generation or two ago. The over emphasis on individuality even as we pressure all toward conformity, which is the unique pool Americans swim in, has resulted in confusion. How could it not? When we preach that “you are a unique and original, one-of-a-kind person” while asking all learners to fit within the narrow confines of college entrance criteria (which causes a great deal of conformity, even though these criteria constantly change), confusion is going to come. And with it comes frustration.
How is a teacher to get all their students to some level of basic college readiness, especially when we are looking at secondary and higher education, which inherits from younger education a varied body of learners? Is it true that each learner can be categorized into one of seven learning styles? Well, a human mind can do endless acts of wonder when it comes to classification. But can these learning styles become authoritative and perhaps even inviolable? Is a learner destined to learn in only one main mode? I don’t think this case has been made.
I think I would distinguish between “micro” and “macro” differentiation. The complex web of lesson planning which entails making allowance in every lesson for all learning styles is the “macro” version. Wise use of multiple forms of presentation in order to fully set forth an idea is the “micro” version. Let an expert in “macro” present their view:
“The goal of differentiated instruction is to match the curriculum with individual student needs. A learning contract allows students to access the same curriculum as their peers, but provides outcomes that are tailored to each students’ learning styles. For example, the contract would include a students’ skill level, their interests, and their learning style. The teacher would then use this contract when planning his/her lessons. For example, if a teacher was planning a research lesson, one student may research their information using the web, while another would use book. The teacher would take into consideration how each student learns best, have it be visual, kinesthetic, tactile, etc.
“Differentiated instruction takes time. Teachers need to constantly observe and assess students to get know how each individual learns best and execute classroom management accordingly. To save time on planning lessons and activities that will reach all learning styles try budd[y]ing up with another teacher. One teacher can plan activities that will address the visual and tactile learners, while the other can plan activities that will address the kinesthetic, and oral learners. Then these teachers can swap ideas. Differentiated instruction requires a lot of forethought, but it can be an attainable method of learning if you use a few the above strategies.”[iv]
Placing this kind of weight on the shoulders of any teacher is going to move them quickly to a place of frustration and fear. But I don’t think teaching and lesson planning needs to be this complex.
Let’s simplify things a little. Perhaps the confusion has come from poor practice? A good classroom must present multiple modes of learning to all its students, not because Piaget’s chart dictates such, but because human learning occurs best in such modes, regardless of his “learning style.” To bring a student to understanding, the lesson must first prepare the student for the lesson through various modes, most notably questions and types. A student does not understand until they “see” the idea being taught. Teaching fragmented facts is never learning. There must always be connections: a narrative if you will. And the good teacher re-presents the idea in multiple ways until all the students have “seen” it. The “end” of the lesson comes when the teacher is assured of its completion by having the students represent the idea of the lesson back to the teacher. If it is not clear enough, more types and questions are presented until the teacher is satisfied. This is learning.
But most of us who teach were not taught this way. Many of us came through the period of educational efficiency that thought its students best learned through the factual equivalence of a fire hose. Lots of notes led to long “objective” tests. Thus the machine was created to grade all those bubble tests. Memory became a means to a different end than in its forbearers. Instead of placing types of the true, good, and beautiful at readily available use within the heart of the student, which was the traditional use for memory, it was now used to store vast amounts of useful information at least until it had been tested. And out of that came the notion that Johnny just does not memorize well. He learns better by _____ learning style goes here___ . This was just bad practice, and we rightly have rejected it.
Returning to questions and types as the source of our teaching will necessarily provide different students with different entry points into the lesson. Let me exemplify this quickly. Ask any two students an open-ended, thought-provoking question about any subject: math, science, literature, etc. They will not hear it, think about it, or respond to it in the same way. That much about the “differentiation” solution is true. But the good classroom does not keep the question private, right? The public question receives hearty discussion from the diverse minds in the room, and before you know it, the predilections of each student (each one’s unique inner thinking environment – call it learning style if you will) bring new and varied understanding to the group.
I think this is why my father’s one room schoolhouse produced a superior student to today’s highly ranked, tested, and grouped student. How can one teacher handle such a varied group of kids? By allowing good pedagogy to gain its strength from the various ages, abilities, and predilections of the students. It is much harder in some ways, but not near as tedious in my estimation.
So the best solution is lots of open questions in a classroom that is safe enough to support real discussion. Of course the students will need coaching on the skills necessary for this classroom: how to listen well, how to speak wisely, how to think, etc.. But the lesson plan which produces this is less like what is described above in the “macro” model, but rather adherence to the notion that less is more. To summarize, I don’t believe we need to have students each making their own meaning, but rather learning that leads them to live in harmony with reality. Less stating of facts, more exploration of ideas and their questions, and above all, more coaching in how to think, read, speak, listen, and write are the best solution to the different students who walk into our classroom each day.
[i] Tomlinson, Carol A., and Susan D. Allan. Leadership for Differentiating Schools & Classrooms. Hawker Brownlow Education, 2006.
[ii] Benjamin, Amy. Differentiated Instruction: a Guide for Middle and High School Teachers. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 1951.
[iii] Paul, John. Faith and Reason: Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul II … Fides Et Ratio, of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Relationship between Faith and Reason. Catholic Truth Society, 1998.
[iv] Cox, Janelle. “Classroom Management: Creating Differentiated Instruction.” TeachHUB, http://www.teachhub.com/classroom-management-creating-differentiated-instruction.