When differentiating instruction makes little sense

By:

Nov 4, 2010

In an Education Week commentary titled “When Pedagogic Fads Trump Priorities” published online September 27, 2010, Mike Schmoker makes a compelling argument against the practice of “Differentiated Instruction”—and suggests that not only does it have no positive impact itself, but it also detracts from the things schools and teachers ought to be doing with their students.

Some might take this as an indictment against one of the central tenets of Disrupting Class—that students have different learning needs at different times—so it may come as a shock that I agree in large part with Schmoker’s piece. It actually lends support to many of Disrupting Class’s arguments.

First, as Schmoker points out, the evidence for teaching according to different so-called learning styles (visual, aural, and so forth) has been, to this point, largely debunked. I have blogged about this previously.

Does this then mean that students don’t have different abilities and different learning needs at different points? Of course not. Daniel Willingham, one of the people who has taken to debunking the learning styles thesis and who Schmoker cites, himself writes about how students need to be offered the lesson that is not too easy or too hard—just above their level in their “zone of proximal development”—for optimal learning to occur (never mind the question of motivation and turning students on toward actually doing the hard work to master concepts and learn). The fundamental point is still true, even if certain schematics might not be (and even this is not fully resolved I’ve been told by many in the field).

Second, as Schmoker points out, in the current classroom structure, differentiating instruction in meaningful ways is next to impossible to do and complicates a teacher’s work to no end. As a result, efforts to differentiate instruction frustrate, waste time, have little upside, and result in lots of downside as they distract from things that do work. This is in fact one of the central points of Disrupting Class. In our current monolithic, highly interdependent system, we have certain assumptions that work in favor of standardization over the customization we need—such as the arrangement of one teacher to many students locked in a classroom-based system where time is fixed and learning is highly variable. Customization in an interdependent system is both very expensive and next to impossible. That is why one of our key points is you cannot simply layer technology into the existing system; it needs to be the enabler to bring about a new student-centric system.

Lastly, Schmoker writes about some things that are proven on which we should focus more in education—content-rich guaranteed curriculum that is consistently well delivered and clear lessons that have frequent checks for understanding. And this is one of the things that online learning—what we advocate for in Disrupting Class as having the potential to bring about a student-centric system—can do so well. It naturally can have a very consistent delivery experience around good curriculum (see the learning successes K12, Inc. has brought about just by sticking their curriculum into the current structure). The best online learning works on a mastery-based system—where students do not advance until they have mastered a concept (as opposed to the current system where everyone moves on no matter if they have mastered the concept) and thus there are frequent check-ins to see how much a student understands and to cycle back into more learning opportunities where appropriate.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.