Sunday, February 19, 2012

Differentiated Instruction Supported by Technological Innovation

Yesterday,  I wrote about the emerging consensus that differentiation instruction can maximize learning for more students.  Skeptics point out that differentiation is one of many movements that have run through education, and argue that eventually, the differentiation movement will subside.   I disagree.   Differentiation is a belated response to the fact that people are different.  They have different motivational levels; different intellects; different interests; differing tolerance for challenge; and different levels of persistence.  They arrive in school with vastly different levels of preparation.  They graduate to jobs with different demands, jobs of which now require employees who can learn new skills and master new tasks.

As I mentioned yesterday, differentiation of instruction places tremendous demands on teachers, parents and students.  If more than one level of learning is going on in the classroom, it means that the teacher is spending less time "teaching" each of those learning levels.   Without adequate support, the teacher may be expected to prepare more than one "lesson" for each of her elementary subjects.    Clearly, if we  try to differentiate instruction by delivering instruction in the same way as before, the differentiation movement is bound to fail.  

One commenter has argued that differentiated instruction is the wrong way to describe the goal, and that we should instead call it "differentiated learning."   That phrase signifies the increased level of responsibility that differentiation places on students to become managers of their own learning process.  If differentiation is going to work, it stands to reason, that in the earliest grades, we should develop students ability to learn how to learn.  Some people will identify strands of this idea in the Montissori  movement -- the idea that in the earliest grades students should develop a sense of responsibility to participate as a partner in the learning process.

The other fundamental change that is likely to support differentiation is the explosion of new technology that can support differentiated learning.  Some of this new technology comes out of the Home-School movement, which has had to find ways to support parents who are attempting to teach subjects that they may not know.   Much of this technology is springing out of a recognition by text-book publishers who have just begun to scratch the surface of accommodating textbooks to computers and the internet.  Universities are now developing internet based high level courses that allow distance learning for persons not enrolled at the university.  A company known as Khan Academy has created a powerful resource for the support of mathematics learning.  Khan academy boasts a library of over 2,600 videos covering everything from arithmetic to physics, finance, and history and 303 practice exercises, to help students learn what they want to learn,  at their own pace.  A website called Purple Math  provides a vast collection of resources that can help students who are struggling with algebra, or students who want to accept the challenge of learning algebra, before it is offered in school.  A company called Thinkwell  produces an array of college level courses, many of which provide a series of lectures delivered by outstanding university teachers.  All of these resources, if properly integrated into the classroom can make the differentiation process more palatable for teachers.
Summary of Decision Network for Excellence
Washington Supreme Court Blog 
JvonKorff on Education, The Rose Decision 
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part I
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part II
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part III
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part IV


  1. Differentiation simply demands time. Time to plan, time to deeply evaluate student potential, and extra time in evaluating the final product. Teachers are being asked to do more and more with no regard for the time commitment they require. One example would be the standards-based grading, which you have discussed earlier. Another would be CLCs. Another would be PLCs, and yet another would be common assessments. All of these things detract from one thing, and that is planning lessons to meet student needs. Teacher's time needs to be evaluated in terms of an entire pie. If you want to add a new slice, the "space" must be taken from somewhere else. Whether that is less student feedback, less parent contact, less collaboration with other could be anything. A teacher's job is completely unmanageable within the hours of the contract or the school day, which is OK. We are paid for a full year and work 9 months. It is expected that a lot of work needs to happen outside of the typical work day. However, it has gotten to the point where school administration is trying to squeeze water from a rock. There is no additional time anymore, and any additional new ideas or approaches need to be accompanied with the elimination of others. The camel's back is already broken, yet we continue to pile onto it, expecting it to keep moving!

    I completely agree that differentiation is the wave of the future. It is a fairly sound practice. However, delivering semi-individualized instruction to 33+ kids in a room never will be effective unless we think outside-of-the-box on how we can free up teachers' time to develop these lessons.

  2. Partly, differentiation is rendered more difficult, because we group by age, rather than instructional readiness. I think that we need to be more flexible with our grouping strategy. If Mary has mastered multiplication and is ready to master division, why would we put Mary in the same arithmetic class with John, who is struggling to understand addition and subtraction. We say that we respond to that with differentiation, but really, how do you differentiate for instruction when half your class should be learning one thing, and the other half something entirely different. More of this to come.


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