Steven Weinberg, a retired Oakland teacher and Education Report blogger, questions the effectiveness of a popular approach to teaching.
Last month Mike Schmoker, a prominent writer and speaker on educational improvement, wrote an article for Education Week (September 29, 2010, p. 22) denouncing differentiated instruction as a “pedagogic fad” supported by “no solid research or school evidence.” The article is available here.
This caught my eye because differentiated instruction is frequently suggested to Oakland teachers as the way to cope with the increasingly wide spread of student abilities within a single classroom, which has developed as ability-grouped classes have been discontinued and more special education students have been integrated into regular classes.
My experience in the Oakland school district seems to confirm Schmoker’s statement that it has quickly become “one of the most widely adopted instructional orthodoxies of our time.”
The basic idea of differentiated instruction, according to Carol Ann Tomlinson, who is its foremost proponent, is that “a teacher proactively plans varied approaches to what students need to learn, how they will learn it, and/or how they can express what they have learned in order to increase the likelihood that each student will learn as much as he or she can as efficiently as possible.”
Schmoker says, “I had seen this innovation in action. In every case, it seemed to complicate teachers’ work, requiring them to procure and assemble multiple sets of materials. I saw frustrated teachers trying to provide materials that matched each student’s or group’s presumed ability level, interest, preferred “modality” and learning style. The attempt often devolved into a frantically assembled collection of worksheets, coloring exercises, and specious ‘kinesthetic’ activities. And it dumbed down instruction: In English, ‘creative’ students made things or drew pictures; ‘analytical’ students got to read and write.”
I have shared Schmoker’s article with several teachers, and in every case they said that it confirmed their own feelings about differentiated instruction. One said that she thought it was a convenient answer for district policy-makers when asked how teachers were to deal with the wide-range of student abilities they faced in the classroom, but it was impossible for teachers to carry out successfully.
In my own teaching I sometimes created lesson that would meet Tomlinson’s definition of differentiation, but I did not organize my entire course around it. I usually tried to meet the different needs of my students by having a variety of whole class activities for each unit, aimed at different learning styles and strengths. I found this much easier in History classes where most of the information I was presenting was new to all students, than it was in English where some lessons might be a total waste of time for some students, who already thoroughly knew the skill being discussed, and still too difficult for some others, who did not have the prerequisite skills to do the work.
What do other teachers and parents think about differentiated instruction? Have you used it successfully or seen it work well, or do you agree with Schmoker that it has “corrupted both curriculum and effective instruction?”