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Differentiation...the big lie

     The big idea in differentiation is to get teachers to think differently about how they set up relationships with and deliver instruction to their students.  The most outspoken purveyor of differentiation is Carol Ann Tomlinson, who wants teachers to think differently about how children learn.  If we want the learning to stick, it must be memorable to them.  It must become something they can access easily in their memory stores.

     Take reading instruction, for example.  Teachers understand that students need to be guided in order to learn how to become good readers, and have traditionally worked with small groups of children at their reading tables, teaching concepts that promote vocabulary development and comprehension.

Tomlinson says that is not enough.  We haven’t made the skills meaningful to them. They are not memorable yet.  The child will not be able to access the learning in a different situation.    To counteract this, Dr. Tomlinson promotes something called metacognition, which means “thinking about thinking”.   Teachers must teach students to understand why they think what they think.   There are proven techniques to get this to happen, things like training kids to self-monitor their learning, track their own progress, and write reflections on what the learning really means.  


    The theory is that when students do this, they are more likely to learn deeply, in a way that will stick, because they understand not only the material, itself, but also where their “challenges” in learning lie and why the learning is important.  

    The theory makes sense.  Getting kids to be their own ally and

value their education is something we all want.  

     How do you implement metacognition effectively?  It requires trust and cooperation from the students, for one thing.  But it also requires a lot of time spent in meaningful discussion with each child.  How can that happen with 30 or more children every day?

     Dr. Tomlinson herself, seems to understand our dilemma:
        “Teaching asks us to do the impossible. It asks us to establish ties

with each child, not to establish ties with all the children

as if they were one student.  They are not.”  

            “The truth is, we will never really do all each child needs us to do. 

            A simultaneous truth is that the first truth is no reason to stop trying.”  

     Many of us sat in our meetings wondering how we could carry this off.  We wanted to establish ties with our students based on their individual dreams and needs.  We wanted to embrace Dr. Tomlinson’s philosophies and practices.

      At the same time, however, we were informed, sternly, that class size does not matter.  If you are caring enough, organized enough, strict enough, and knowledgeable enough, your students will respond positively to any strategy.  End of story.  

     This lecture is delivered by someone who has not worked in a classroom in years, perhaps decades, even.  The last time this person taught, spirited collaboration was not even invented.  

     Still, Dr. Tomlinson’s words spoke to our heart:

            “Differentiated instruction is responsive instruction.

 It occurs as teachers become increasingly proficient in understanding

their students as individuals.”  

     The fall-out, though, from trying to understand each child’s differences is that we experience limited results and sometimes failure, because there are just too many students, and they are all so….different.   Best practices in education may have changed for the better over the years, but how we put kids together in classrooms has not.   

     When teachers are discussing ideas like differentiation, collaboration, and metacognition, we tend to focus on the rose-colored version.  Every teacher imagines her entire class so enthralled with learning (due to her excellent strategies and way with kids) that nothing ever goes awry.  It’s a heady feeling, imagining teaching like this in a room full of eager students.  Brainstorming ideas with colleagues adds to the euphoria, as we each imagine how wonderful our new school year will be.  Additionally, we are shown videos of teachers being successful with many strategies touted as “best”.  

     The reality is often far different.  If you are lucky, a third of your students are eager.   Others harbor a hate for school because it takes effort or it takes away from their free time or they don’t see the value in learning something they will never use in life or they are in  a perpetual power struggle with the world.  

     Still others have trouble retaining concepts, so they give up and often become behavior issues.  And then there are those who suffer from neglect at home, so they arrive at school ill-prepared for anything but daily survival.  In differentiation, teachers are supposed to accept all this and adapt everything in the classroom for every possible nuance that students bring to the table.  It’s not doable, but you begin to doubt every skill you ever had as a teacher because your principal keeps insisting that it is doable, bringing district experts in every now and then to punctuate her case.

   The experts don’t want you to dwell on class size because it defeats their purpose of convincing everyone that methods alone are the foolproof way to get students to achieve. 


from  Chaos in Our Schools

T.L. Zempel


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