My response… Differentiated Instruction

I was intrigued when I read James R. Delisle’s commentary from Edweek, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.”  As some of you may know, world renowned advocate for differentiation Carol Ann Tomlinson responded recently in her commentary “Differentiation Does, In Fact, Work.”  I’m in no position to argue either one of these commentaries but I do want to comment on some positions Ms Tomlinson takes in her response.

I’m an 8th grade math teacher in a middle school setting.  I was fortunate enough to have the backing of a previous administration that allowed the counselor and I to experiment with flexible grouping of students.  Our intention was to begin the school year with classes (45 min periods) of students grouped by similar strengths and weaknesses as determined by a number of considerations.  These groups weren’t meant to be static “tracks” but would allow the teacher to systematically design instruction that would target those weaknesses.  Once a student demonstrated he/she could perform at a level demonstrated at the sequential level, he/she was to be moved to the next class.  The grouping was to be very fluid.  Ms Tomlinson first stated that tracked or grouped classes, particularly the lower groups tend to be taught by newer or less experienced teachers using a curriculum that is far less robust than that used in upper tracks.  She states that the intellectual climate is dampened because students placed in lower groups consider themselves less able.  Ms Tomlinson points out some other frightening considerations of grouping students by ability, but I’ll allow you to read the article yourself.

My immediate response was that if Ms Tomlinson is accurately describing the environment in which grouping has traditionally taken place, shame on those leaders who allowed that to occur!  I can’t imagine that a shred of research would support a situation like that.  Flexible grouping, from my experience, is far different than what Ms Tomlinson described.  Particularly in a middle school setting, it’s much easier to allow the same teacher to instruct all the groups of students, rather than a new less experienced teacher instructing the low groups.  A tremendous amount of communication is required to keep the grouping flexible in nature and to ensure planning is accurately diagnosing and addressing student weaknesses.  I can’t imagine that being the case if different teachers are instructing different groups of students in an attempt to keep student schedules flexible.  Grouping or no grouping, it’s important that the classroom provide a robust and engaging curriculum.  No one would argue that.  In reference to the intellectual climate, I made a concerted effort to build a climate where the lower groups of students (you know, the ones who hated math, sat in the back to never utter a word, care less about turning in work on time or passing tests) knew immediately that Mr Oldfield was not going race through the curriculum with entire disregard to whether they were learning or not.  I communicated effectively that there would be no time limits on learning.  I appeared in my class one day as a “guest speaker”, Mr Brain Researcher, to share with my students the knowledge that all students are geniuses in one talent or another.  I most certainly kept my word that students would move up to a different class once they demonstrated they were ready.  The students in my lower classes still contact me occasionally and tell me that my math class was the only one where they actually learned something.  The students dropped all fear and inhibition at the door when they came to class.  I still exposed them to as much of the rich, authentic, technology-enhanced instruction as I did with other classes, I just made an attempt to identify where they were, communicate where they needed to go, and determine how we could all get there.

Don’t get me wrong, the system I attempted to implement was far from perfect.  Learning is chaotic.

chaoticlearningThe levels at which all students perform throughout the year needs to be monitored constantly.  Benchmarks for students to accomplish in order to move up need to be communicated often.  What I can say with full certainty is that my system looked nothing like the ones communicated by Ms Tomlinson and other commentaries blasting tracking students.  I believe it can be done in a manner that puts students first, eliminates any negative perceptions, and fills in the swiss-cheese gaps created by traditional k-12 math progression.

Having experienced both flexible grouping and very heterogenous groups of students in each period, I can’t go to the extreme that Mr Delisle takes on his position against differentiation.  I will say, for me and my position, it was easier to differentiate pace, planning, instruction, activities, and support for my students when they weren’t heterogeneously grouped within the same class period.  In fact, I feel myself failing more often than not in filling those swiss-cheese gaps this year because each class period presents such a wide variety of skill levels.  The struggle to differentiate is a constant fight for me, mostly in terms of time.  The time required of me to genuinely structure 5 different class periods each day in a way that maximizes engagement and support, and provides content-rich activities for each student is a real commitment.  This commitment is one that often makes me question where to focus my time: my family or my job.  I will continue to take Ms Tomlinson’s advice and incorporate low prep strategies as much as possible, while continuing to make progress in those areas she considers high prep.  I applaud Ms Tomlinson for her work and do consider her an irreplaceable resource for me and my class.


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