"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.