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Differentiated instruction: Snake oil or coconut oil?

I wrote a column a few years ago on differentiated instruction, calling it the coconut oil of education because of all its fabled curative powers: “It can reduce cholesterol, moisturize your skin and meet the needs of all students, no matter where they fall in the performance panorama. And make a tasty pie crust, too.”

At the time, I heard from defenders of differentiated instruction who said it worked when done right. I also heard from teachers who felt it was one more fad.

Apparently, the issue remains controversial. Education Week recently ran a critical essay in which educational consultant James R. Delisle wrote, “It seems that, when it comes to differentiation, teachers are either not doing it at all, or beating themselves up for not doing it as well as they're supposed to be doing it. Either way, the verdict is clear: Differentiation is a promise unfulfilled, a boondoggle of massive proportions.”

After the overwhelming response to the piece, Ed Week asked a proponent of differentiated instruction to write a rebuttal.

In her essay, University of Virgina professor Carol Ann Tomlinson, author of  books on differentiated instruction, said, “I work with teachers regularly—in the United States and around the world—whose teaching consistently reflects the principles and practices of differentiation. It's how they do business. 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 sprinters expecting quick success, so much as marathoners in the race for the long haul.”

In a follow-up, Delisle maintained readers overlooked his chief concern: “How little gifted students benefit from differentiation in heterogeneous classrooms, which was a major point of my commentary.”

But Tomlinson argues in her piece that differentiated instruction can help those advanced learners, too, writing, “I have no more patience with classes where advanced learners stagnate than I do with classes that shortchange kids who struggle with school. 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. In the two decades since those studies, I've observed and 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.”

This is where I am rejoining the debate. In June, the last of my four children graduated the k-12 system. All my kids took an array of advanced classes in the form of accelerated, International Baccalaureate or AP courses. For the most part, they regarded those classes as their favorites over their general or regular courses. Their reasons: less disruptive classmates, deeper discussions, more meaningful work and teachers who did not seem overwhelmed but, instead, impassioned.

The best example is my youngest son, who was able to jump a year ahead in math in middle school, a move that landed him in rarefied company through middle and high school. While our schools don't have tracking, the advanced math kids ended up with similar schedules so my son attended most core classes with an academically gifted cohort, and it made a difference. Whenever parents ask me whether their child should attempt accelerated math, I advise them to try it as the benefits go beyond math class.

To be clear, I believe a classroom of mixed abilities can yield good results for all the kids, but the teacher has to be exceptional, the class size reasonable and the student behaviors conducive to learning.

And that leads us to another controversial debate for another day. In the current push to reduce suspensions and expulsions, are schools pressuring teachers to keep disruptive kids in the classroom? And can that co-exist with a differentiated classroom?


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.