Differentiation Does, in Fact, Work

By Carol Ann Tomlinson, Education Week, 1/28/15

[Michael’s Note: This essay rebuts James R. Delisle’s commentary, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.”]

With sustained support, most teachers can learn the skills necessary to provide classrooms that are both academically rich and academically diverse.

I’ll begin with the idea that teachers don’t differentiate instruction. In fact,…I work with teachers regularly…whose teaching consistently reflects differentiation…. They don’t, as Mr. Delisle writes, “beat themselves up for not doing it as well as they are supposed to be doing it,” but they do understand that the pursuit of expertise in teaching is a career-long endeavor. They aren’t…expecting quick success….

Then there’s the assertion that the only people who think differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it….

I taught for 20 years in differentiated middle school classrooms…working with colleagues who did the same. Like many other teachers…we invented instructional approaches we hoped would benefit our diverse learners, keeping those practices that worked and jettisoning or modifying those that didn’t.

At the University of Virginia, I continue to differentiate in my classes. I also work often with school-based academic coaches and principals who share with colleagues the practices of differentiation they used successfully in their own classrooms. And there are many specialists—in special education, English-language learning, reading, gifted education—who continue to differentiate…even as they share what they know while working alongside teachers in general education classrooms.

Mr. Delisle’s fundamental argument, however, doesn’t seem to be so much that differentiation can’t work under any circumstances, but rather that perhaps it could if we’d just group students by ability. While I know of no aspect of education on which all studies are in total agreement, this one comes close.

Students in lower-track classes don’t achieve as well as they do in heterogeneous settings. Those classes tend to be taught by newer or less engaged teachers. The quality of curriculum and instruction is less robust than in most heterogeneous settings. The intellectual climate in tracked classes is further damped by students who know they are siloed because adults consider them to be less able than many of their peers….

As the wise Bart Simpson told his teacher in one episode of The Simpsons: “You think I’m not smart so you’re gonna put me in a remedial class and slow down what I do. At the same time, the other kids will keep moving ahead, and you think someday I’ll catch up?”….

One outcome of tracking that should be of particular concern in the current school year—the first in which “minority” students became the majority in U.S. schools—is the reality that low-track classes continue to be disproportionately composed of students of color and/or low-income students, while high-track classes remain disproportionately white and/or Asian and middle class….

Recent work in neuroscience and psychology reveals two findings that should be central in educational planning. First,…when we teach as though students are smart, they become smarter. Second, a related but separate body of research indicates that teachers who believe firmly in the untapped capacity of each learner, and thus set out to demonstrate to students that by working hard and working smart they can achieve impressive goals, get far better results than teachers who believe some students are smart, others are not, and little can be done to change that….

That undermines a chief point of Mr. Delisle’s argument that bright learners can’t fare well in heterogeneous classrooms…. I am a firm believer that schools owe every student what the noted researcher John Hattie calls “plus-one learning” in his book Visible Learning for Teachers. With plus-one learning, teachers are obliged to ensure that each learner—including those who are most advanced—moves forward consistently from his or her starting point.

I have no more patience with classes where advanced learners stagnate than I do with classes that shortchange kids who struggle. Here are a couple of points worth considering, however. The studies most cited in terms of benefits of homogeneous instruction for bright learners examined two conditions: heterogeneous classrooms in which little or nothing was done to provide plus-one learning for advanced learners, and homogeneous classrooms in which teachers regularly planned for plus-one learning….

I’ve studied schools in which the entire faculty focused on providing a third condition: differentiation in mixed-ability classrooms where regular planning for a full spectrum of learners—including advanced learners—was a given.

Teachers in those schools typically “teach up,” planning first for advanced learners, then scaffolding instruction to enable less advanced students to access those rich learning experiences. Further, they extend the initial learning opportunities when they are not sufficiently challenging for highly advanced learners. In those schools, achievement for the full spectrum of learners—including advanced learners—rose markedly….

I’ve never felt differentiation was a panacea…. Differentiating instruction well is not easy. But then, I’ve never felt that teaching should be easy….

With intelligent, sustained support, most teachers can learn—step by step and over time—the attitudes and skills necessary to provide plus-one learning in classrooms that are both academically rich and academically diverse.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is a professor and chair of educational leadership at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. She’s the author of numerous books on differentiated instruction.


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