Differentiation is nothing new but certainly a topic of discussion in many school faculty, department and PLC meetings. Teachers are constantly being asked to differentiate everything in their classrooms. This ranges from lessons and activities to furniture and assessments. The goal of differentiation is to create a more personalized learning experience for each child and create optimal opportunities for rich learning experiences. On the surface this sounds like a great idea and naturally would be in the best interest of all kids. But is it really?
As a classroom teacher you will have anywhere from 20 to 35 individual students in your classroom. They will range spectrums of cognitive ability, maturity, academic skills, hygienic awareness and many other personal characteristics. Naturally, this makes the task of attempting to differentiate for them all quite daunting. In doing so, or at least doing it poorly, I worry we may be watering down the learning for all students.
Have we gotten to a point where we want things so differentiated that in turn the quality of the learning is diminished? Teachers are spending hours trying to create a variety of learning activities but is the end result better learning? Far too often differentiation is done in a manner to help those students who struggle in our classrooms. As a result, the higher performing students are far too often left unchallenged and quickly become bored. I don’t blame teachers for this because in our test obsessed school culture the focus is almost exclusively on bringing the “bottom up”. On top of that, if we are being honest, there are more resources and support to help that population of students than there is to enrich those on the other end of the spectrum.
Another concern with differentiation is the manner in which our classrooms are set up. Class lists are generated based on a “born on date” that ignore the nuance and complexities of child development. As a result, our classrooms have such a range that it is impossible for one teacher to achieve a truly differentiated learning experience. There is just not enough teacher to go around. I recognize teachers have little to no control over this system, but it is a reality we must recognize.
My final concern looks at how much and what we differentiate. Teachers have become very good at providing choice, autonomy and modifying work so that all learners can access content. However, at times I wonder if in doing this we take away student’s opportunity to struggle and build skills such as resilience and perseverance. While I don’t want kids to struggle to the point of frustration, we need to make sure the end goal of differentiation is not to make learning easy for kids and provide every kid with the “easy A”. I myself have been guilty of stepping in too early when a kid struggles and not let them work through things like I know I should.
There are certainly solutions out there to these and many of the other concerns with differentiation. First, some will suggest we need to create more homogeneous classrooms which will make the spectrum more narrow and therefore easier to differentiate. I would caution against this as nearly all research indicates the positive learning and social benefits of heterogenous classrooms rich with diversity. For me, the solution is, as it often is to problems in schools, we need more teachers. Give every classroom teacher more sets of hands to help differentiate and support kids. Bring in parents and community volunteers to do reading groups or projects with kids. Hire more teaching assistants and co-teachers to maximize the abilities of the classroom teacher to support all learners.
Differentiation can be a game changer for kids and can provide authentic and personalized learning experiences for kids. However, if it is not supported or seen as only a way to bring the “bottom up”, it will fail and likely cause damage to the learning environment for all students.