top of page

Differentiation: Is it even possible?

Among buzz words in education, it is the most celebrated but least understood. What does it mean to ‘differentiate’ in one’s classroom?

According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, author of several books about the subject, readiness is the hallmark of differentiated instruction. Trying to teach children something they are not ready for is bound to be largely unsuccessful. How do teachers determine that readiness? They continually observe their students, looking for clues to well-being and cognitive development. They also figure out what engages each student and teach to that engagement. Additionally, they bring to the table multiple ways of motivating each student. These ideas, combined with personalized assessment, form the bulk of what it means to differentiate.

Here is where the disconnect between expectation and reality

rears its ugly head.

The feasibility of creating individual learning platforms for every student has not been seriously addressed by anyone in power. While assuring us that her ideas are sound and have proven research behind them, Dr. Tomlinson acknowledges that she has conducted that research in controlled settings: either one-on-one or with very small groups. That’s not how real teaching works.

The fall-out from trying to teach to each child’s differences is that we experience limited results and often, failure, because there are so many students, and they are all so …. different.

But teachers are continually harangued regarding the need to provide a differentiated program of learning for every child. Does that sound doable? With 30 children in a fourth grade classroom? Every principal and superintendent in this country apparently must think so, because differentiation is an ever-present criterion in teacher evaluations, making the job of teaching even harder and more stressful than it already is.

Over the last decade, many teachers have discovered a workaround to this impossible situation, and you’re not going to like it.

(At least, you shouldn't.)

But “discovered” isn’t really the correct word for what is happening currently across public K-12 education in this country. We didn’t discover it; we were explicitly told by our bosses that we should do it. Even though they knew it might not represent anything close to reality, they still admonished us to do it.

What is it?

Documentation. That’s the name of the game in modern American education.

For you, the teacher, the bottom line in your career is not whether your students can pass the state tests. It also doesn’t necessarily matter what your principal observes when he comes into your classroom. What matters is whether you can provide evidence, on paper, that you are employing differentiated instruction and assessment for your students.

Way back in 2013, my assistant principal in Colorado told our faculty that “if it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen”. He showed us the district’s online documentation platform and told us that we should be entering items to it daily. We could even enter bulk ‘documentation of instruction’, like this:

No one can prove the above instruction didn’t happen. This ‘evidence’ can be made even more compelling by adding that “instruction was provided based on individual assessment”. How’s that for convincing?

This idea of documenting classroom activities, whether they happened or not, has become the elephant in the living room:

no one is willing to address the feasibility, let alone possibility, of doing everything we say we are doing for every student under our care. Yet the paperwork that says we did becomes the be-all and end-all. We can thank the teachers’ unions for this. When performance-based evaluation schemes became the norm, the unions jumped into overdrive to create workarounds.

Differentiation is a laudable way to approach educating children. It is what they need. It is also not doable within current teacher-to-student ratios. If any superintendent had to differentiate for 30 students across a school year and then be judged for his efforts, this ludicrous situation would undergo serious re-consideration.

That is not likely to happen because those in charge do not have to deal with this impossibility themselves. They get the luxury of imposing expectations and then standing by while others struggle with them.

How would I change the situation?

Read the final chapter in Chaos in Our Schools. Here’s a hint: class size and number of adults in a classroom are the key.


Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Dec 10, 2023

Class size doesn't seem like a controversial topic. Who doesn't want their child to have more tutoring opportunities in school?

bottom of page