Why I Don’t Like Differentiated Instruction

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I have read countless books, articles and blogs on the importance of differentiating instruction. I disagree with almost all of them because of the teacher-centered approach they take. Learning isn’t instruction; learning is acquisition.

Instruction focuses on what the teacher provides or what the teacher tells the student and differentiation merely postulates that teachers need to provide a variety of materials and tell in a variety of ways.

That is teaching.

Learning is something else.

Learning is inquisition, investigation and association.

Inquiry Cycle

Learning starts with questions. Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? What happened? What will happen if…?

Investigation is not the teacher providing the answers before the question is asked. It is the process of the student seeking potential answers and testing them.

Learning emerges as the result of information gleaned in the investigation phase associating with prior knowledge leading to the synthesis of new knowledge and, when it works best, new and better questions.

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14 Responses to Why I Don’t Like Differentiated Instruction

  1. jimpedrech says:

    I agree with your points about the nature of instruction, but I also think that differentiation and investigation are highly compatible.
    I think DI is most successful in my classes when the task is open-ended. Here is an example: http://pedrech.wordpress.com/2011/05/10/chw-3m-independent-study/

    • Deven Black says:

      I think that all students should be able to learn in whatever way they feel most comfortable and express that learning in whatever way they feel they can. That is not what most schools mean when they say “differentiate” to teachers and that is not how teachers hear or understand it. Differentiation grew out of Howard Gardners nonsense about different intelligences. He takes a very narrow and categorical approach to intelligence and then educational theorists distort it into the notion of differentiated instruction.

      Intelligence is intelligence and it is pretty much the same thing whether you produce art, music, words, movement or some other thing. They are not discrete intelligences, they are intelligence expressed different ways. When schools got ahold of it we started being told to give assignments like “write a song about the 13 colonies” so that those with musical intelligence would feel right at home, totally ignoring the fact that people who write music are frequently not including words in the writing, and that most of the people who allegedly have musical intelligence use that intelligence for listening to music, not for creating it.

      Semi open-ended assignments, like the one you link to, are inquiries – guided ones – where certain objectives and a limited number of permitted outcomes.My idea of differentiation is to proposed a question or problem to students and let them go wherever it takes them. Some will end up where you might expect them to, but others, given the freedom to free-associate and follow tangets that arise, will end up somewhere else having had a different, perhaps richer, learning path. THAT is differentiation that I can support.

      • Tammy says:

        Coming from a primary standpoint, differentiated instruction is very important, but it is not teacher driven activity sheets. It’s holding each child to the same high expectations, but scaffolding and supporting those in different ways in order to help them reach the targeted understandings. We just need to stop talking to hear our own voices long enough for them to hear their own. They need the time and freedom to discover what they can do laready, to ask questions and discover the tools with some guidance, as each one needs something a little different. It’s about being positive in our approach to guiding the learning process and building confidence and self-esteem because once they have that, nothing can hold them back.
        I love your posts. I especially love the one about teaching history from now and working backward to see how we got here. So simple, yet powerful. That is inquiry at it’s best right there. So open for kids to go in so many directions. You sound like a wonderful teacher. Cheers!

      • David DOC Scholl says:

        I loved your response, but more important, I was just reading the blog and saw your name and had to contact you!
        Just gave an Ipad, tech conference to a group of teachers in Scarsdale. Would love to catch up!
        David DOC Scholl
        OLD-BLYTHEDALE FRIEND

  2. Teachermum says:

    What you have said is so true…. if we had to teach and differentiate for every student in our class, well – then there would be a differentiated program for each child, as each child is unique, right?
    We are currently using the whole Cultures of Thinking Models at our school which I find brillaint, as they are all about making thinking visible…and it is from thinking that we get learning. It gets each child to ask those questions and make those connections and then move from there.

  3. Perhaps we need to change the phase to differentiated learning.
    One of the key points in differentiation is that not all students learn the same way and therefore the way the teacher facilitates that learning does need to be different and by definition differentiated.
    During tonight’s #edchat I and others mentioned the need for meeting students needs as the focus of reform. Again if that is the focus and we need to individualize than again we need to differentiate how we insure learning.

    • Deven Black says:

      Learning cannot be assured in general, and certainly not in particular. One of the problems with education these days is this emphasis on standards. As soon as standards come into the picture the notion of student-centered learning goes out the door. Standards, even those called learning standards, are about teaching more than learning. I have a strong suspicion that by the time I dropped out of high school for the second time I had learned far more than the students who stayed in class though my learning was far from standard.

      Teaching starts with the standards and has a particular destination in mind. Learning starts with the learner and can lead anywhere. When teaching we talk about creating life-long learners, but when you shift the focus to the learner the problem becomes one of finding the guides, facilitators, resources and experiences that can help to satisfy that present inquiry and fuel the new and continuing ones.

  4. [...] Then I saw a blog post titled “Why I don’t like Differentiated Instruction” [...]

  5. Amen. Although any good teacher will do whatever is necessary to reach each student, some of the obstacles to learning cannot be differentiated into non-existence. It’s egocentric, or at least teacher-centric, to think that we just need to shift our approach, and the student will suddenly “get it.” You can’t differentiate a student out of poverty, for example.

  6. Never considered this angle before but so incredibly true. However, hopefully the core elements of differentiated instruction can be leaned upon to ensure learning paths are opened for all students. Great post!

  7. eadurkin says:

    I agree with the main thrust of the comments that it is the learning that should be differentiated, rather than a teacher centered approach.

    This blog post is very topical from my perspective as right now in my mathematics department we have issues in grade 6 and 7 where the teachers are struggling to cope with the wide range of abilities of students in their classes. One teacher feels like the talented students are missing out, and the classes should be separated according to ability.

    I tend to agree with the principal who does not subscribe to that point of view. The principal and I believe that other students can benefit by having those talented kids in the class.

    So what do I tell the teachers with this problem? Well, we follow the IB MYP curriculum which does offer scope for enrichment, but I believe, as most writers here have pointed out, if tasks are open-ended, the differentiation is automatic.

    Hence, this forum might be a good place to put out a call: We are an international school in Kobe, Japan, called Canadian Academy, and we would like an enrichment consultant who is a specialist math expert to come and give us some help with this. Is there anybody out there that can help?

    • Deven Black says:

      Math is everywhere in the world and I’ve always thought that concepts are learned best when they are applied. I don’t know about life in Kobe, but in NYC there are dozens of actual problems with real implications that students can work on in and out of the classroom. Actually, getting the students out of the classroom and finding the math in life may be the best way to teach it.

  8. [...] Why I Don’t Like Differentiated Instruction I have read countless books, articles and blogs on the importance of differentiating instruction. I disagree with almost all of them because of the teacher-centered approach they take. Learning isn… Source: educationontheplate.wordpress.com [...]

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