Differentiation is not a recipe for teaching. It’s not an instructional strategy. It’s not what a teacher does when they have the time. It has to be a way of thinking about teaching and learning. A philosophy. Think about it as a set of beliefs.
Students who are the same age can still be at different levels in life. For example their readiness to learn, their interests, their styles of learning, their experiences, and their life circumstances will all be different. The differences in students can be significant enough to make a major impact on what students need to learn, the pace they need to learn it, and the support they need from teachers and others support staff to become proficient in it.
- Most students learn best when supportive adults push them slightly beyond where they can work without assistance.
- Most students learn best when they make a connection between the curriculum and their interests & life experiences.
- Most students learn best when learning opportunities are natural.
- Most students are more effective learners when caring adults create a sense of community within the schools and classrooms.
The MOST important job of each school is to maximize the learning capacity of each student.
Differentiation—one facet of expert teaching—reminds us that these things are unlikely to happen for the full range of students unless curriculum and instruction fit each individual, unless students have choices about what to learn and how, unless students take part in setting learning goals, and unless the classroom connects with the experiences and interest of the individual (Tomlinson, 1995, 1999). Differentiation says, “Building on core teaching and learning practices that are solid, here’s what you do to refine them for maximum individual growth.”
We first need to ask, Is a given teaching or learning approach likely to have a positive impact on the core of effective teaching and learning? When we are content with the answer, we can ask further, What is the effect of the practice on individuals in an academically diverse population? The latter question always helps us refine the effectiveness of the former but cannot substitute for it.
For many teachers, curriculum has become a prescribed set of academic standards, instructional pacing has become a race against a clock to cover the standards, and the sole goal of teaching has been reduced to raising student test scores on a single test, the value of which has scarcely been questioned in the public forum. Teachers feel as though they are torn in opposing directions: They are admonished to attend to student differences, but they must ensure that every student becomes competent in the same subject matter and can demonstrate the competencies on an assessment that is differentiated neither in form nor in time constraints.
To examine the dichotomy between standards-based teaching and differentiation, we must ask questions about how standards influence the quality of teaching and learning. What is the impact of standards-based teaching on the quality of education in general? Then we can assess ways in which standards-based approaches make an impact on gifted or academically challenged students whose abilities are outside the usual norms of achievement.
- Do the standards reflect the knowledge, understandings, and skills valued most by experts in the disciplines that they represent?
- Are we using standards as a curriculum, or are they reflected in the curriculum?
- Are we slavishly covering standards at breakneck pace, or have we found ways to organize the standards within our curriculum so that students have time to make sense of ideas and skills?
- Does our current focus on standards enliven classrooms, or does it eliminate joy, creativity, and inquiry?
- Do standards make learning more or less relevant and alluring to students?
- Does our use of standards remind us that we are teaching human beings, or does it cause us to forget that fact?
If we are satisfied that our standards-based practices yield positive answers, we can look fruitfully at how to make adaptations to address the needs of academically diverse learners. If our answers are less than satisfactory, we should address the problems. Such problems inevitably point to cracks in the foundation of quality teaching and learning, and we diminish our profession by failing to attend to them. Differentiating curriculum and instruction cannot make up for ill-conceived curriculum and instruction.