Differentiation places an unreasonable demand on teachers

by Grace

Differentiating instruction in today’s mixed-proficiency classrooms is tough on teachers, and it’s certainly not always best for students.

83% [CORRECTED*] of teachers surveyed said that in practice, differentiated instruction is difficult to implement.

Malcolm Unwell explains it this way.

Perhaps there is a student who is just learning English in your class. And perhaps that student sits next to another who wants to have an in-depth discussion about Shakespeare. Should these two students prove difficult to teach at once, a normal person might consider what the root problem is — that they shouldn’t be in the same class. But the wise education bureaucrat knows that any problem here must be the teacher’s — he must not have differentiated his instruction enough.

Separating students according to ability is traditionally known as “tracking,” and it is frowned upon by the educational establishment.  Having students of varying ability in the same class is known as “inclusion,” and it is smiled upon.  While I was earning my MAT, I quickly realized that advocating tracking was simply not a valid position to put forth in education world, or “thought world” as E.D. Hirsch described it.  Tracking is unfair, and undemocratic.  It perpetuates the pattern of hegemony and domination present in the larger culture.

A local school administrator told parents that tracking students before 8th grade would permanently scar them.  Consequently, in our local district almost all classrooms up to 9th grade are mixed proficiency.  The elementary math program requires that the teacher spend the first part of class on a lesson geared towards all her students, with the expectation that everyone will learn something from it.  In reality, some struggling students still don’t comprehend it and some advanced students are bored.  After this whole group introduction, then the teacher is supposed to differentiate instruction for all proficiency levels.  Problems are “adapted for multiple ability levels”

These problems are sometimes referred to as “low threshold, high ceiling” problems because all students can understand the problem and solve some part of it (low threshold), but even the highest-ability students in the class will not easily complete it (high ceiling).

So teachers present adapted versions of the same problem, tailoring them to personal proficiency levels.  In theory it sounds nice, but in practice it must be much more challenging than teaching to a homogeneous group of students.  I always think of how inefficient it is, especially when reformers call out for longer school days.

It is now unacceptable to simply teach a lesson to a class, and assess the students according to how well he demonstrates his knowledge of the content.  Different students should have different lessons with different assessments.  Needless to say, this is completely unworkable  in practice.  It is doubtful, really, that any teacher actually does this.  If one did, it would likely be a chaotic disaster in which learning is incidental or nonexistent.

In this differentiated instruction environment, all students can be “successful”.  But parents should be aware that it may be at a “low threshold” of success.

* The percentage was off by 1 point before I corrected it.

Hat tip to Joanne Jacobs

13 Responses to “Differentiation places an unreasonable demand on teachers”

  1. The funny thing is that the wide range of skill levels in a class is one of the top gripes that teachers mention (it comes up over and over again as the major challenge in public school), but somehow, nobody within the system wants to narrow the range of students that a particular teacher has to teach to.


  2. “Plus, the students see that other students are getting easier work, which is disheartening.”

    Yes, or simply MORE work – busy work or extra worksheets. It’s often at this point that motivation starts to fall. “Why try my best since it only earns me the right to do more work and not gain recognition?”


  3. I’m just glad that my school district is more sensible than many on this topic! If I remember correctly, differentiation can be effective if you’ve only got to handle 2 or 3 grade levels within the classroom, but typically there is a much wider range of achievement within each grade at my kids’ schools.


  4. Peer learning is often poorly executed. Some things I’ve observed in mixed groups:

    Advanced learner is teased/bullied as a “know-it-all” and learns to keep quiet instead.
    Slow learner completely lost and ignored by other group members.
    Both advanced and slow learners become frustrated and withdraw or try to distract others.
    The advanced learner “discovers” the concept and tries to teach the others. And groups are supposed to be where all students discover learning. In fact, most of the the students are getting the worst of both worlds – no expert guided discovery and direct instruction by a 4th grader!


  5. “In fact, most of the the students are getting the worst of both worlds – no expert guided discovery and direct instruction by a 4th grader!”

    My 4th grader does that to her 1st grade brother all the time at home–he doesn’t like it.


  6. 84%

    That’s a sweep.

    You NEVER get 84% agreement on anything.


  7. But just throwing a student who is “ahead” at a “struggling” student is terrible.


    There’s a charter school in NYC, which I haven’t had time to arrange to visit, that uses a peer-teaching approach that I think uses peer-teaching as the assessment….Students aren’t deemed to have reached mastery until they can actually teach what they’ve learned to another student. (I think that’s the way it works.)

    ‘You haven’t mastered it ’til you can teach it to someone else’ is a good standard for me; I constantly realize that I haven’t really mastered something when I can’t explain it in writing. (Whether or not this standard works in a class or is the best standard to use, I don’t know …)

    I’ve also come across some peer editing that struck me as useful. Now I can’t remember where I saw them, but I’m sure I’ll run across them again. These were a very specific set of questions peers are to answer about each others’ papers.

    The new Barak Rosenshine article in American Educator is terrifically useful on the subject of **why** you would do peer teaching & peer tutoring, etc. (I’ll get a post up at ktm.)

    However, given what he says about ‘deep processing’ of material you’re trying to learn, I suspect that it would be better to have students write about what they’re learning than talk about it to another student. I’m guessing that the mechanisms that makes peer-teaching work, when it does work, is similar to or the same as the mechanism that makes writing work.


  8. Speaking of peer education, when I was in 3rd grade, I didn’t listen that well, and I was convinced that the way to alphabetize was to count up which letters preceded which. It was a very complicated method, and very wrong.


  9. I CORRECTED the percentage of teachers who found differentiated instruction difficult to 83%. My apologies for the mistake.


  10. “These were a very specific set of questions peers are to answer about each others’ papers.”

    For peer editing, that makes so much sense. I’ll have to ask my son if that’s how they did it in his classes.

    Regarding teaching as a way to assess learning, I am very uncomfortable with this. I think teaching is a whole other skill, and asking a student to teach a peer seems like the wrong standard. Not to mention that shy kids might have a problem with this.


  11. Amy – your anecdote about alphabetizing strikes a chord. There have been many times when I’ve “learned” the wrong or inefficient way to do something. And trying to convince a child that they’re doing it wrong can be challenging, especially when it works most of the time for them. Once it’s sticks in your head, it’s hard to let it go.


  12. “Amy – your anecdote about alphabetizing strikes a chord. There have been many times when I’ve “learned” the wrong or inefficient way to do something.”

    Just imagine me peer teaching my method! Terrible.



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