Feature                                                      Pages 18-22


Common Sticking Points

About Differentiation 

10 of the familiar ‘yes, but …’ refrains and how you can address teachers’ hesitancy to moving forward 


A typical classroom today is a jigsaw puzzle of learners. It is not unusual for a teacher to have in one class students from multiple cultures, bringing with them varied degrees of proficiency with English and an impressive array of learning exceptionalities (both identified and not identified), as well as a broad array of economic backgrounds.

Carol Ann Tomlinson (right)
and Marcia Imbeau

That set of descriptors doesn’t account for students’ varied learning strengths, entry points into any given segment of the curriculum, dreams and interests or approaches to learning.

There are three approaches schools and teachers can take to deal with this common span of academic diversity. One is to place students in heterogeneous settings and do little to attend to student differences. The second is to track or group the students homogeneously by ability, what we perceive to be their potential as learners. The third is to create heterogeneous classrooms designed to attend to learner variance. The third option advocates differentiating instruction in heterogeneous classrooms.

Option one — heterogeneity without attention to its reality — has been tried and found wanting over generations, even when student populations were far less varied than those in contemporary schools and those likely to be in schools of the future. Some educators suggest that as long as teachers “teach well,” a one-size-fits-all approach can succeed. That is likely not the case for the students who do not understand the language of the teacher and text, students who already know the content before the teacher “teaches it well,” students who have significant gaps in prerequisite knowledge, and so on.

Option two — ability grouping and tracking — not only has a poor record in terms of student achievement, but also too often creates classes stratified by race and economic status in an era where there are evident benefits to bringing diverse individuals together. In addition, this approach frequently results in educators misjudging student capacity and teaching down to those students perceived to be less able. Again, this approach is counterproductive when the nation’s clear mandate is to raise the level of challenge and proficiency for all students.

Approach number three, which we now refer to as differentiated instruction, is the comparative newcomer on the scene. Early research on differentiation is promising and, when implemented correctly, it is solidly rooted in sound educational theory and research. Most teachers report seeing the need for differentiation in their classes. Nonetheless, translating that perception into practice is daunting. Human beings are not prone to embrace change.


Additional resources

Thus even with the recognition of student differences and the conclusion that those differences matter in teaching and learning, the prospect of rethinking teaching and learning often results in a predictable rash of “Yes, buts …” when teachers consider developing and applying the principles and skills of differentiation.

Sensible Answers
Over the years, we’ve undoubtedly heard most of the “Yes, buts ...,” as well as some responses to them. It’s important for education leaders to understand both teacher hesitancy to change and the power of meaningful change. There are straightforward answers to most “Yes, buts …” A few are more legitimate.

No. 1: “I can’t differentiate instruction because I have to cover the standards for everyone.”
RESPONSE: Differentiation is an instructional approach and does not dictate curricula, although it does suggest, based on much research and visible evidence, that student learning is far more durable and purposeful when curricula is meaning-rich than when it they are a list of data. The primary goal of differentiation, however, is to help teachers develop and use multiple pathways for students to learn whatever they teach, including content standards.

No. 2: “I can’t differentiate instruction because the standardized test is not differentiated.”
RESPONSE: Research clearly indicates that students will typically perform better on stand-ardized tests when they have had the opportunity to learn in preferred modes, even if the test is not in their preferred mode. That is the case both because they learned the content better and because they entered the testing situation with greater confidence in themselves as learners. There’s little logic in teaching students in a way that’s awkward for them just so they will be prepared for a test that is awkward for them.

No. 3: “I can’t differentiate instruction because I’m already too busy and have absolutely no extra time for planning.”
RESPONSE: The idea is not to plan everything the way you always have and then plan differentiation on top of that. The goal is to plan instruction in a differentiated fashion from the outset. In addition, it’s essential for teachers to pace themselves and to move into new ways of thinking about teaching and learning at a level that produces growth and change without being overwhelming. If you have an hour to plan tomorrow’s lesson, spend the hour planning an effectively differentiated approach.

No. 4: “I can’t differentiate instruction because I teach too many students.”
RESPONSE: This comment is made variously by teachers with 20 or 25 or 30 or 35 students in their classrooms. The number of students does not seem to dictate the response. In fact, it’s been stated by teachers whose enrollment went from 12 in the past year to 15 in the current year. There also are teachers who regularly differentiate with 40 or more students in their classrooms. Would it be beneficial if teacher-student ratios were lower? It’s hard not to advocate for that, and yet research indicates teachers typically do not differentiate more when class sizes are reduced.

No. 5: “I can’t differentiate instruction because I only have one textbook.”
RESPONSE: So many instructional materials exist beyond the textbook. Usually, the school district has old or otherwise unused textbooks that contain material on the same topics as a current text but are written at different readability levels. The Internet opens the world in terms of readiness, interest and even learning-profile options. Media specialists are valuable resources for matching materials to student needs. Or teachers can just use the textbook differently with different students based on current learning needs.

No. 6: “I can’t differentiate instruction because my classroom is too small.”
RESPONSE: It would be great to teach in a spatially generous setting. Many teachers don’t and won’t have that luxury. Again, a small room size doesn’t seem to be a discourager for teachers who mean to differentiate instruction, although those teachers undoubtedly would love to have a larger room. And a larger room does not seem to be an automatic catalyst for student-focused instruction.

No. 7: “I can’t differentiate instruction because it won’t prepare students for college.”
RESPONSE: If students were developmentally ready for college at 6 or 12 or even 16, we should send them on. They are not. Effective differentiation should, in fact, prepare students for education after K-12 by ensuring they learn the content, habits of mind and self-awareness necessary for continuing learning.

No. 8: “I can’t differentiate instruction because parents won’t accept it.”
RESPONSE: Few parents recoil at the idea of teachers who genuinely care about the growth of their students and who are willing to invest in making sure students have the most productive year possible. That’s what differentiation aims to do. Communicating that effectively to parents, and then following through, is more likely to generate allies than enemies for teachers.

No. 9: “I could differentiate if my students were older (and therefore more responsible), but they are only 7, 9, 11, 16, 18.”
RESPONSE: Students learn to be responsible and self-guided in classrooms where teachers approach teaching those skills with the same seriousness they use to ensure student mastery of the subjects they teach. Students in any setting and of any age can learn to be effective partners for one another and for the teacher in a flexibly managed classroom. In fact, the place in which nearly all students work effectively with a balance of structure and freedom ideal for a differentiated classroom is kindergarten.

No. 10: “I don’t see how I can differentiate because our district (or principal) requires us to use a pacing guide and scripted texts and we’re sanctioned if we deviate from either of them.”
RESPONSE: This common “Yes, but ...” statement is more difficult to answer. Sadly, it is something teachers encounter with frequency in today’s schools — and thus, something school leaders need to understand and avoid.

Only one meaningful response exists: “I apologize. I did not intend to create conditions in which you cannot be responsive to the needs of the students you teach. Please use both documents as guides and not as impediments to effective teaching. By all means, do not abandon your professional judgment.”

Asking teachers to attend to the evident differences their students bring into the classroom and simultaneously not to modify either instruction or time frames is not feasible, and it places teachers in the untenable position of choosing between wholly incompatible directives.

Predictable Objections
These 10 “Yes, buts …” are not only common, but predictable. They are characteristic of novices in any field and feel like a safety net in the face of a call to disrupt the generally comfortable routines we’ve established. To the degree teachers are able to cling to them, they are justified in their sense that this differentiation thing is impractical — at least in “my classroom.”

Nonetheless, many teachers who initially subscribe to the “Yes, buts …” grow increasingly uncomfortable in the face of student frustration and stagnation. Those teachers risk implementing student-focused approaches in their classroom and often have two realizations. First, their students are the beneficiaries of their efforts. Second, addressing their students’ needs wasn’t nearly as foreboding as they had assumed it would be.

Incrementally, but steadily, these teachers learn to be more responsive to the students they teach, and positive student outcomes encourage continued teacher development. Somewhere in that process, the “Yes, buts …” cease to serve a purpose and become an artifact of the past. In other words, propelled by a sense of necessity and nurtured by a sense of accomplishment, many teachers answer their own “Yes, buts …” through increasingly effective practices.

Wise education leaders empathize with the difficulty of making significant changes in teaching practices. They also provide the persistent, intelligent encouragement and support teachers need to make those changes. They celebrate progress and redirect missteps. They also avoid sending mixed signals to teachers about their roles as professionals in recognizing and responding to the varied needs of the students they teach.

Carol Tomlinson is the William Clay Parrish Jr. professor and chair of educational leadership, foundations and policy at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. E-mail: cat3y@virginia.edu. Marcia Imbeau is an associate professor of special education curriculum and instruction at University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ark.



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