On the Importance of Differentiation 1/2
“How often do kids come back to you and say thank you for your test prep?”
Listening to Carol Ann Tomlinson speak about the importance of differentiation is akin to recognizing a familiar and harmonious tune playing in the background. You find yourself initially humming the tune before the chorus kicks in and you begin to sing along loudly.
I sat in on two of her keynotes at the EduLead 19 conference and was completely engaged throughout. Her sagely observations and advice, delivered with grandmotherly wisdom in a soft Virginian accent, deeply resonated with me. Her presentations reinforced long held beliefs of mine and were supported by both scholarly evidence and profoundly reflective testimony. She graciously shared her slide decks here.
Her first session was masterfully delivered. She made a case for effective differentiation for all students by using student voice and personal anecdotes from her years of experience as a middle school language arts teacher. Each point she made was supported by a memory, student verse, or a written note of gratitude she received.
She began with a reflection on Madeline L’Engle’s question posed in A Wrinkle in Time, “Why does anyone tell a story?” This was to frame the next 45-minutes of her personal stories and reflections on connecting with kids.
“Teachers are story people too. Each day we tell the stories written by others. And we author our own stories as we go about our work. Our students are characters in them. And it is a trust of teaching that we guide students in the writing of their own stories. Our actions and words bear on the nature of the story each young learner will carry into the world. It’s a matter of faith that we do what we do. We are a testament to the reality that what people choose or say or do matters cosmically! “
The stories she then shared were very personal, teaching her that differentiation was not a set of strategies for success, but rather a “way of being.” She supported John Hattie’s research that describes teaching as an invitational learning environment through which meaningful teacher-student relationships can be established.
One of her first stories was about a student named Pam whose creativity had been stunted by a learning environment focussed on test prep. I can relate to this in so many ways. I cannot stomach limited professional development time being used to target test skills, band jumpers, and practice tests that invalidate the importance of everything I do in my classroom. If we want to nurture innovators, we must promote opportunities for creative habits to form.
To highlight this disconnect, she pointed to a reasoned analysis done by psychologist Edward Deci in his book, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation.
In a way, it’s all quite ironic. Parents, politicians, and school administrators all want students to be creative problem-solvers and to learn material at a deep, conceptual level. But in their eagerness to achieve these ends, they pressure teachers to produce. The paradox is that the more they do that, the more controlling the teachers become, which, as we have seen so many times, undermines intrinsic motivation, creativity, and conceptual understanding in the students.
Each story Tomlinson shared was personally affirming, reflective, and cut close to the bone. I needed to be reminded that my students are individuals first and to not promote labels over learning needs. She told us the story of a 12-year old boy and how school had failed him. For Fritz, “there is no extra time, there is no changing of approaches, there is no different assignment.”
Michelle’s story also made a personal connection as far too many of my students must make the same choice daily. A choice between what Tomlinson referred to as “achieving and belonging.” Michelle had faith in herself that she could achieve something, but I worry about my students that cannot find the inner strength, surrounded as they are by poverty, poor role models, and violence. When we look at poor behavior choices in students, how often do we look beyond the surface and see the child?
When Tomlinson turned to Heather’s story, it was another awakening for me. If you know me, or know of my school, my students struggle. Every day poses new and familiar challenges relating to literacy, behavior choices, hormones, academics, and relationships. Too often though, we forget about students that seem to “have it all” going for them. They have successful and loving parents, supportive friends and family, and they are engaged in leading a fun and active lifestyle. They are the ‘A’ students we all wish we had more of in our lives. They are the kids whose papers we read first because we know they will set the mark. We exult their accomplishments, promote their abilities in teacher conferences, and are heartened because we know that “they will accomplish great things” beyond our class. And we ignore the danger of this thinking.
I’m guilty of it. Usually, it hits me at the end of the year when I reflect on kids that I think I have “helped” in some way. When I get around to thinking of the Heathers I have, it is too often with a whisper of regret for not doing more. Tomlinson shared this insight with us all
“I needed to create a ceiling for Heather that she would need to struggle to reach.”
There were more stories to listen to and more memories to reflect upon before she transitioned into her summary and parting thoughts. The audience was paying close attention. Differentiation is not a common practice in Singapore where grouping students into ability levels has been a long held practice. Ability groups are identified in upper primary school and student schedules reflect these associations all the way through secondary education and beyond. In recent weeks it was announced that the time had come to begin to dismantle these policies. Beginning next year, select schools will modify student schedules to allow for lateral movement between courses. For the first time, students will find themselves in classes based on their subject matter knowledge. I’ve had many interesting conversations with teachers here that are facing this change and are seeking advice.
The next to last slide contained final thoughts that moved us all. I have read and reread it many times and think it eloquently speaks for all educators and reminds us why we do what we do.
She had one final story to share and set it up masterfully. Every day a child enters our classroom, we should look them in the eye and acknowledge the fear, the hunger, the pain, and the self-doubt and remind ourselves to focus the lesson on what is truly important and what will make a difference not only in our most troubled, but for all.
As she read this aloud, you could hear a pin drop. When she reached the final line, there was an audible gasp. We are all Kathleen.