The other day, a reader commented on my blog post Four Differentiation Mistakes to Avoid. The comment was long, but this part caught my attention:
“Hello Dr. Jackson,Playing devil’s advocate, I see a couple of unsupported statements in the post. For example, you say ?learning style is static.? Do you really think so? But the mention of “low group” students “sailing through an activity,” sounds farfetched to me as an urban high school and community college math teacher. I would only call students “low group” if they scored in the lowest quartile, or the low failing range, 208-218, say, on the 8th or 10th grade MCAS the Massachusetts statewide test. Students in this group are showing that they are not yet interested in, or not yet ready for, manipulating numbers in the abstract (algebra.) Most, if not all, of the students in this “low group” do not know times tables, lack number sense that comes from knowing times tables and equivalent fractions, and many would apparently rather put the brakes on high school (almost at any cost ? our drop-out rate is very high) than carry on with high school courses in which they have no choice. And, to their credit, some would rather retry learning arithmetic ? but to do this they (and I as their teacher) would have to be in ?violation? of the ?standards.? Curriculum Framework Standards indicate all 9th graders should be learning algebra. And I feel, after reading posts like this, that the problem of uninterested/unprepared 9th graders not doing well in Algebra can easily, (thoughtlessly, and unfairly) be blamed on poor 9th grade Algebra teaching. Therein lies the problem. It seems only natural to me that folks who have been doing a job for a long time feel pretty expert at it and when someone comes in and says ?do it this (new) way because your students? failure is due to your teaching,? it better come from someone who a) knows what you are doing and b) has proven what they are saying. So can you clarify: Are you thinking that the teaching of algebra to 9th graders like those in my ?low group? can be done successfully as long as it is done by ?differentiated instruction?? If so, this is where the rubber hits the road: where are the detailed, real-life examples of a year-long algebra course that shows successful ?differentiated instruction? in practice? And shows how it differs from current (best) practices? I keep looking and keep not finding. I read you had great success teaching AP English. What about 9th grade algebra in a “failing school?”
I meet a lot of teachers who share these same frustrations all the time. In fact, in all of my books, I take the time to address these kinds of questions in the “Yes,but…” sections so I thought I should take the time in a separate post to address this “Yes, but…”
First, I should warn that I am not going to be able to provide a solution in a blog post. The best I can do is share my thoughts briefly here to a few points raised in this comment and invite further conversation, not just between this member and myself but with the entire Mindsteps Community. So, here goes!
Is learning style really static? I am not arguing that a students’ learning style is static but once we label a student a “kinestetic learner” for instance, those labels tend to stick and they limit us from finding creative solutions that help us customize our approach to students. The approach to differentiation I am advocating recognizes that a students’ learning style is much more fluid than our labels allow and that we should look beyond learning styles to the immediate learning needs in front of us. If learning styles can inform our approach, great? But most of the time, I see them being used a a poor proxy for the kind of careful consideration of students’ “right now” learning needs that makes differentiation successful.
Can “low” students really “sail” through an activity? I can only tell you what I’ve seen in my work with urban schools and districts and in the work I did myself as a teacher. It doesn’t happen every single time, but I have witnessed students sailing through an activity when they have the right kind of support. Scaffolding is critical and when it happens, I have seen struggling students meet with immediate success with certain grade-level activities. But it doesn’t happen every day and it takes some work to get there.
Is poor performance really the fault of poor teachers? Not entirely. Much of the work I do now is with schools that are trying to figure out how to help the lowest performing students meet or exceed the standards. One of the reasons I developed the differentiation framework I developed was because I wanted to find a way to make differentiation work in a secondary classroom with over-worked teachers and failing students. And, I wanted to make challenging courses accessible to students who were clearly un-prepared for them. I am not just talking about suburban schools or wealthy districts or “AP kids” or even simply “average” kids. I work and have worked in schools in DC where students have moved from Algebra II directly to AP calculus with little more than a summer refresher course and in schools in NYC, Baltimore, Boston, LA, and several “border towns” in Texas where student only show up for school 2-3 days a week, where crime is rampant, where failure is persistent and seemingly intractable, where the culture is dysfunctional, and where the kids are so far behind that they are operating 2-4 grades below grade level. Right now I am teaching a writing course to students in an urban school system who are reading and writing 2-4 grade levels below where they need to be and who are still now writing in complete sentences. In all cases, it is a confluence of factors that lead to student failure. We cannot control many of those factors but we can control the quality of our instruction. So do I think persistent failure is entirely the teacher’s fault? Absolutely not. (Check out my many posts on why we shouldn’t blame the teacher here here here and here). But do I think that there is more that we can be doing in the classroom to help all students meet or exceed the standards? Yes I do. It’s not that I don’t recognize that we are up against profound and powerful deterrents to teaching and learning. It’s just that I’d rather spend my time looking for things I (and the teachers I support) can do immediately to improve these kids’ chances.
Is Differentiated Instruction really “the answer?” I get into trouble a lot when I start talking about Differentiated Instruction. So many school systems and pundits have latched onto it as the “second coming” of instructional strategies. I believe it is a powerful strategy that should be used in combination with other strategies but it is by no means a panecea nor should it be treated as one. At it’s best, differentiated instruction isn’t even a strategy at all — it’s a integral part of what good teachers are doing any way. Master teachers are responsive to their students’ needs. They adjust their instruction to meet those needs. They are neither controlled (and shackled) by the standards nor are they dismissive of them. Instead, they keep the standards as the target but adjust their instructional approaches to respond to students’ individual needs. In doing so, they may take a departure from “page 25 of the curriculum guide” or even stop to fill in background knowledge but their ultimate goal is to help every student meet or exceed the standards. When I work with ninth-grade algebra teachers or fifth-grade teachers in a failing school or third grade teachers struggling to teach students literacy skills or AP US history teachers opening the gates to under-prepared students I am not telling them that differentiation is the answer. I try to differentiate my coaching and support in the same way that I want to see them differentiate their instruction. I try to understand their teaching situation and customize my advice to meet their immediate teaching needs. Sometimes it’s differentiated instruction. Other times, it’s strategies to increase rigor or ways to proactively support struggling students or tips on how to set students up to learn. Each teacher is different and each classroom requires a different approach depending on the students’ individual challenges and the teacher’s unique teaching style and approach.
Ultimately, I believe that’s the spirit behind differentiated instruction and it’s not just for students. The same consideration should be given to teachers (and the advice I give them) as well.
I’d love to hear from others who are struggling with the same thing. What works, what hasn’t, and what questions do you have?