"The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil." — Ralph Waldo Emerson
"'Teaching to the middle’ may have had its charm in the bell-curve mentality of a factory economy, but our current economy, which demands a wide range of skills and talents, demands that we can no longer afford the price of ignoring the kids on either end of a curve that has long since outlived its usefulness." — Jane Bluestein
"This class really gave me the opportunity to learn the way that’s best for me." — Megan W., student
Consider this all-too-common scenario: a teacher has introduced a new skill to her students. They’ve had time in class to practice it. By the end of the period, some of them have mastered it and some haven’t. When the teacher assigns homework on this topic, some of the students resent having to do busywork, while others aren’t ready to tackle it alone because it is too difficult. Some students may not even try to do the homework because they don’t know where to start.
When reviewing the homework the next day, some students will be bored or impatient because they want to move on immediately, while others will be lost and ashamed about how little they understood, if they even did the work. How can the teacher respond to all their needs?
This scene is symptomatic of a fundamental problem that can be found in many traditional classrooms. We all know students learn in different ways at different rates, yet we expect them all to do the same work at the same time, both in the classroom and at home. In so doing, we systematically require some students to do busywork and prevent others from getting as much practice as they need.
The most immediate consequence of this “one-size-fits-all” approach is that it distributes students along a bell curve of success. This sorting does enormous damage to students at both ends of the scale. The teacher must aim the pace of the class to reach the students in the middle. She will offer as much help as possible to the students who are struggling, but time constraints and the typical lack of motivation of unsuccessful students often limit how effective that support can be. At the same time, the most successful students are often left bored and resentful about having to wait for the other students to catch up.
This problem is a remnant of the “factory model” of education. The notion that everyone must do the same thing at the same time ignores the wide range of readiness and motivation to learn that is found in most classrooms. To solve this problem, to make the classroom truly responsive to the needs of every student, we must implement differentiation — creating ways for students do different things at the same time.
The last chapter explored how study groups allow students to "share the wealth". By having students who have mastered the material work with students who haven’t, study groups provide a powerful mechanism to offset the bell curve of motivation and ability. However, this approach alone is not enough. It does not allow the most successful students to be challenged sufficiently or the least successful to work independently as much as they need to master the material.
Well-designed differentiation complements the work of study groups by providing a range of challenges appropriate for every student.
In order to give each student the support he needs, it is essential that each student be able to work at the appropriate level of challenge for him at that moment, whether this means remediation and practice or enrichment work.
Furthermore, the range of student learning styles must be addressed. For instance, to accommodate visual, auditory, and tactile-kinetic learners, activities that use all three modes should be available in learning any given material.
When a class does not use differentiation, students are apt to feel like cogs in an educational machine — the class marches through the curriculum whether its individual members are lost, discouraged, or bored. When a class becomes responsive to their needs, however, they feel that they are being heard, they are truly part of something greater. This sense of belonging is critical in creating the desired classroom culture.
"The work and the learning I do are mine, mine, mine. This is indeed my class, which sets it apart in a very positive and authentic way." — Liz L., student
Differentiation requires choices to be made about what work each student should do. But who should make those choices? If teachers are in charge of this decision-making, they must consistently check up on each student’s progress to see what work they should assign that student next. This results in increased bookkeeping. Worse still, it leaves the teacher making all the decisions. In class after class, students are given little or no voice in their own education.
Unfortunately, when “differentiated instruction” is implemented, it often leaves this problem untouched. Instruction is what teachers do. It is much better to have students making their own decisions. What is needed is “differentiated learning”, rather than differentiated instruction. Learning is what students do.
The consequence of students having a say in how they learn is profound. The sense of ownership they feel boosts their motivation and responsibility. It can transform their working relationship with their teachers. When trained to choose contract work for themselves, students can make more effective decisions than their teachers because they know what they need more accurately than their teachers do.
Once we are clear that differentiation should be student self-directed, how do we prepare our students to take on that role? In traditional classrooms, students are rarely given the opportunity to make meaningful educational decisions. It is therefore not a safe assumption that they can simply start making good choices for themselves. Like any skill, effective decision-making requires practice. It is an important skill, both in school and in life. It is worth taking seriously and allowing enough time to do it right.
Of course, making good decisions requires a sense of responsibility. A student needs an internalized sense of ownership first. This will often require unlearning years of being told what to do and of doing work for the teacher or grade, rather than for the sake of learning. Practicing this responsible posture must be woven into the fabric of the classroom. Students need to make choices whenever it is practical, and they need feedback about how well they are making those decisions, especially when they are first learning this skill.
If a student is to become aware of whether he has mastered new material or not, he needs to receive nonjudgmental feedback. For many students, that may mean overcoming shame over poor grades. They may also need to overcome their fear of making mistakes. Knowing what level of challenge he needs at any given moment means seeing his current state of mastery clearly and without judgment.
The student must also become conscious of how he learns. This requires him to first become aware of the fact that human beings learn in a wide range of modes. More importantly, he needs to become self-aware about his own personal learning style. This is of great importance, and not just academically.
Teaching a student to be self-aware about his learning style requires you, the teacher, to first be well-informed about the topic yourself. As described below, there are a number of modes of self-awareness that must be addressed.
Helping each student discover how he best learns can be accomplished using any of a number of simple diagnostic tests. It is also useful to have students pay attention to how easy or difficult it is to master new information through various modes. One way to reinforce this metacognitive exercise is by having every student write reflections on how smoothly or successfully he learned new material by reading, listening to a lecture, having a conversation, working on a guided tutorial on a computer, or by doing an activity.
The issue of teaching students to be self-aware will be explored in depth in “Teaching the Skill of Learning”.
Consider the following diagram, taken from “The C-Zone”, Dr. Robert Kriegel’s book on corporate management techniques. It describes a situation in which a person is learning new concepts or skills. (Note: I have modified the diagram from the original to make it more relevant to the classroom.)
The vertical axis describes the level of difficulty for the learner, and the horizontal axis how proficient he is at that topic. If a learner is in the “Panic Zone”, he is overwhelmed because his level of expertise is insufficient to master that level of difficulty. In the “Drone Zone”, he is bored because he is working on material that is too easy, given his level of expertise.
In between these two areas is a zone in which the student is comfortable with the level of challenge, given his current level of expertise.
Ideally, learning occurs within this comfort zone. As shown in the next diagram, the learning process might start with an introduction, represented by the first vertical arrow, which provides an initial look at a new level of difficulty.
Once the student bumps into the upper limit of his comfort zone, he needs to practice at that level of difficulty. This work is represented by the first horizontal arrow, in which he is gaining experience without taking on more challenging material. If the student practices too much, he enters the Drone Zone and finds himself doing busywork. Before that happens, he needs to be introduced to the next level of difficulty (the second vertical arrow). This process continues until the learning goals have been mastered.
The path of learning and the shape of the comfort zone are dependent on the individual student. In the diagram below, a student with more ability and background experience makes larger intuitive leaps into new material and requires less practice. His comfort zone has a steeper slope and he will clearly achieve mastery quickly.
The next diagram describes the learning process of a student who, for whatever reason, has difficulty in picking up new ideas and skills. The amount of practice he needs is greater, (the horizontal arrow is longer), and it will take more effort for him to achieve mastery.
A central purpose of differentiation is to allow every student to work within his comfort zone and practice as much or as little as he needs to master the learning goals.
After an introduction to new material, some students have mastered it and are ready to move on, while others haven’t. Before any differentiation is attempted, however, it is essential that both the students and the teacher have feedback about their level of readiness to move on. A quick checkup may be sufficient to tell you that differentiation is called for. It will also inform each student about what he needs to do next.
For a student who has mastered the material, some form of enrichment is called for. This can be a more sophisticated challenge regarding the same topic that was just completed, or it can be an introduction to a different topic altogether.
For a student who hasn’t yet mastered the material, remediation is called for. The actual form of this work will depend entirely on what type of material is being learned. For skills-based material, more practice may be required. For concepts-based material, more reading or analysis or discussion of the concepts may be optimal.
Both enrichment and remediation can be done by individual students or small groups. Both can be done with or without your participation. However, if a student is working with other students or with you, he should ideally do another checkup afterwards to determine whether he has mastered the material independently.
Educators have known for a long time that students learn in different ways. To be truly responsive to the needs of every student, we must acknowledge those differences and build structures accordingly.
Differentiation by learning style means giving students the choice of how they will learn. This may mean offering activities that appeal to different learning styles, including:
Some students learn best by seeing; others by hearing; and still others by doing something physical with their bodies. To learn about the law of inertia, for instance, physics students might watch and analyze videos of crash test dummies, listen to a lecture or discuss something they have experienced that involves inertia, or perform hands-on experiments with carts and dolls to physically simulate collisions. During open work time, all three types of activities can occur simultaneously.
Some people learn best by getting an overview of a new concept or skill and then working through examples of how it is applied in the real world. Such a student, a deductive learner, will therefore want to start a new unit by having the big picture explained to him. He will want to then test the pattern by studying how it can be specifically applied in various situations.
An inductive learner, on the other hand, prefers to build a pattern himself through an exploration of details. He will choose to begin a new unit with experiences that allow him to put together a number of observations and come up with a synthesis—the big picture—on his own.
It can be difficult to balance these two approaches in a single class. The deductive approach tends to be more teacher-directed, and therefore may be experienced as a more traditional structure. The inductive approach, on the other hand, will often begin with a student-directed exploration of ideas.
The key is for the teacher to initially provide the minimum guidance so that a deductive learner can begin his exploration of applications as soon as possible and an inductive learner can still discover a more complete overview for himself.
Providing differentiated activities for inductive and deductive learners is particularly important in the introduction and exploration phases of a learning sequence.
Since taking notes during lectures or when reading new material is a commonplace activity, it’s important to recognize that different students need to use different techniques for taking those notes. Of course, they may not know this about themselves, so they need to be introduced to as many options as is practical and given the opportunity to use each option multiple times before deciding for themselves which is most effective. Examples from an English class are included in Tools for Teachers.
"There are so few teachers that slow down a unit if they need to do so for the sake of the students’ comprehension of the subject matter, and it’s sad that there aren’t more teachers who practice these great habits." —Maya Z., student
Some students learn faster than others. A student may be more highly motivated, more innately adept, or more interested in the subject at hand. Perhaps he has a stronger background in that subject. In any case, the pace at which he learns is faster than other students.
A responsive classroom allows every student to proceed at a pace that is appropriate for him. For instance, if there is a sequence of skills or concepts that build toward complexity, activities should be designed so each student can march through them at an independent rate. Such a structure requires giving students sufficient feedback at each step to assure mastery before moving on to the next activity. It also requires having sufficient remediation work available at each step for students who don’t master the work immediately.
When a student reaches the end of the series of activities, he can do one of two things. First, he can move on to an enrichment activity with a more sophisticated level of challenge. This might be related to the current topic, or it could involve independent work or work on a long-term project. Another option is for the student to become a Resident Expert by helping others who are struggling. The role of Resident Experts is discussed in section 4.8 of “Study Groups: The Heart of Conversational Learning”.
In some classes it is possible, even preferable, to have students explore a range of divergent topics simultaneously. For example, an assignment in an English class might allow students to write about diverse topics. In a history class, a long-term independent project might offer individual students or small groups the chance to explore a topic of their choice.
Yet another example occurs when a class is studying a topic with too many facets to explore in depth together, such as climate change or the Cold War. Students can choose from a range of specific subtopics to delve into, master, and report back to the whole class to provide an overview. Even the presentation format can be differentiated—some students may prefer a Power Point-style slide show, others a video, a blog, or some other format.
In any activity that is differentiated by topic, it is best if every student has an active role in choosing the topic. This requires some scaffolding to help him choose and define the scope of the work he wants to do, and to provide guidance on how to proceed.
Here is a form used to help students choose a topic for a long-term writing assignment. Note that at the start, the available topics to write about (called prompts) are limited to three, and that each student is asked to assess his level of comfort with that topic after working on it for a while. This reflection serves to help him decide whether to proceed with that topic or shift to another. Later in the process, the number of possible topics expands, and still later, the self-evaluation shifts towards how well the student is revising his work with each successive edit. (Thanks to Amanda Lipinski and Patrick Noote of Palatine High School.)
This example is explored in more detail in “Learning Contracts”.
Differentiation creates a problem: if we are working to meet every student’s needs at an appropriate level of challenge, and some students learn more quickly and thoroughly than others, some students will learn more than others.
If that is the case, when we give a test at the end of a unit, what should be tested? If it is the whole amount of material that the fastest students learned, then we are insisting that the students who don’t learn as quickly be penalized with lower grades. In other words, we continue to reinforce the bell curve. Surely that is not acceptable.
If, on the other hand, we test only what the slower students learn, we run the risk of “dumbing down” the course, or, worse, undermining the motivation of the faster students to push themselves at the appropriate level of challenge. Why would they work harder if they are going to get an “A” either way?
One solution to this dilemma is to remove the stipulation that every student achieve the same level of mastery over the same curriculum in order to be successful. If every student is expected to master the “essential learning goals” — defined as the content which is considered non-negotiable in its importance — then it is possible to create other work that is “above and beyond” — more challenging than the essential learning goals — for students who are ready for such enrichment activities. In other words, through differentiation, it’s possible to have every student achieve mastery over essential content and simultaneously have students who are capable of being challenged at a level that is appropriate to them.
“Above and beyond” work, which is by definition enrichment, does not have to be graded. In some circumstances, it may be useful to have students who take on this work to be assessed to help guide the learning process, but no one should ever be penalized for choosing to do this work. The issue of assessing above and beyond work is discussed further in “Making Tests Meaningful.”
If we define and assess the essential learning goals this way, we are simply making the full range of our curriculum something that every student is exposed to (as is necessary in a true liberal arts education), but not required to master. We then let those students who are able to pursue their learning into greater depth do so. As for the question of why successful students would dive deeper and accept the challenge of above and beyond work, that is a function of establishing the appropriate classroom culture.
This approach requires a fundamental shift from much of what is seen in traditional classrooms. The issue of curriculum standards and how they are defined will be discussed in full in “Implementing Ideals in the Real World.”
We must choose between having a uniform standard for mastery that applies to every student and a system that allows every student to be legitimately successful. If we base our actions on the true purpose of school, rather than the curriculum transfer model, the choice is easy
If you are considering differentiation for the first time, the topic may seem overwhelming. Will your students be capable of the necessary independence? Will they be responsible enough to make good choices?
Such considerations are not as daunting when the appropriate classroom culture has been created. Taking time at the beginning of the school year to establish that culture is vital. It is an investment that pays for itself continuously throughout the rest of the year.
The other issue that differentiation raises is how to organize the varied activities. The solution is the creation of Learning Contracts, a structure that organizes the choices available to students. The next two chapters explore the aspects of this most useful structure
Because students have different ways of learning, every student should be able to learn in the way that is optimal for him. Because students learn at different rates, they should be able to pursue mastery at the rate they are capable of, not one defined by the needs of the class as a whole.
In general, it is appropriate and effective for students, rather than teachers, to steer their own learning. Internalizing the decision-making in the learning process is a worthwhile skill, regardless of the content being learned. It is a life skill that is useful not just in high school and college, but in any job worth having.
The difference is whether the student has agency and ownership of the learning process. Who makes decisions truly matters.
Some students will always learn more than others. No matter what standards we impose, this has always and will always be true. No one should be penalized for that fact.
Enrichment activities are necessary so that students who have mastered the essential learning goals will be able to continue pushing themselves at an appropriate level of challenge.
In order for a student to know what to do when there are options available, he needs feedback that explicitly shows his status in mastering the material.
Feedback is how you know when the divergence in student understanding is becoming significant and must be addressed. A mechanism for differentiated learning is necessary at every juncture where such divergence occurs.