Differentiation Is Not Supposed To Hurt


Apr 11

Just the other day, I tried to fast forward over a commercial playing on my car radio.

That’s when I knew that I had lost it.

You see, I am so used to being able to skip a song I don’t like on Pandora, or fast-forward through a television show, that I expect almost everything to work like that.

Can you relate?

I mean think about it. Today, just about everything is customizable. Gone are the days when you have to wait for your song on the radio or wait for your show to come on television. Today, you can literally have everything your way.

That got me thinking about our students. How many of them feel like fast-forwarding or rewinding our lessons every day? After all, if our students can customize just about every experience to their tastes and preferences, it must be really hard for them to “sit and get” lessons that are pitched to the nebulous middle. 

And yet, this is exactly what many of our students experience every day in the classroom.

We don’t mean to do this to them of course. It’s just that it’s really tough to meet everyone’s needs AND get through the curriculum in a year’s time.

Even when we attempt to get to know our students’ individual likes and dislikes, learning strengths and weaknesses, backgrounds and dispositions and create lessons that address all of these, trying to do so for every child every day is next to impossible and we often settled for superficial connections or just give up entirely. 

Sure, we know that differentiated instruction is important, but it often feels time consuming and difficult to do properly.

And therein lies the problem:

Differentiation isn’t supposed to hurt.

So if it hurts, maybe we’re doing it wrong.

[Note: Want to learn how to create differentiated lessons that actually work? Check out the Differentiation Workbook]

The Differentiation Workbook

Maybe instead of what we think of as differentiation, we should focus on building lessons that are flexible enough that every student can find a way to access the curriculum.  Maybe instead of trying to guess what our students may need, we should teach students how to show us what they need in ways that can be quickly addressed by the supports available in the classroom.  Maybe instead of trying to adapt our lessons to meet each student’s need, we should create lessons that students can customize themselves.

Maybe instead of focusing on individualization, we should focus on customization.  Maybe instead of trying to meet the individual needs of students we should show them how to meet their own needs and instead of building individual lessons for each student build lessons that are flexible enough so that all students can access them. 

What if we enlisted our students to partner with us to figure out what they needed instead of trying to figure it out by ourselves?  If we did, we would create a shared learning space where we can work with our students to help them get what they need from our classes.  We would also show student how to leverage the currencies they bring with them to the classroom to access the curriculum in the way that works best for them.

Imagine what would happen in this kind of classroom!  Students would be more engaged because they would be actively involved in creating and monitoring their own learning.  Students would also feel more comfortable because they are learning how to leverage their backgrounds and currencies in order to access the curriculum. Learning would take place at a much deeper level because students are learning how to learn and how to take the curriculum and adapt it to their own contexts.  Rigor would naturally increase, and because students and teachers are co-creating the learning experience, relationships would thrive.

That’s the kind of differentiated instruction that we need right now. Those are the kinds of lessons that cannot only meet ALL of our students’ needs; it can revitalize our own passion for teaching.

 Differentiation shouldn’t hurt. So, let’s stop using outdated differentiation techniques and build truly customizable lessons.

[Note: Learn how to create customizable lessons and units in the Differentiation Workbook]
The Differentiation Workbook

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(8) comments

Tammy Worcester November 11, 2009

Great post! I love the idea of making the curriculum customized instead of individualized.

Bruce Kasanoff November 11, 2009

Robyn, I love this article and just posted an excerpt/link on my site – NowPossible.com – which covers personalization in education, healthcare and beyond.


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