Guest Column: Differentiation as Unavoidable Reality

Matt Williams

Differentiated instruction (DI), as a pedagogical technique, has high aspirations. It aims to create a personalized classroom experience for each student, one that allows a degree of ownership and access far more than the types of classes most students experience today. A class that’s ultimately student-responsive, the argument for DI goes, is not just an educational good, insofar as it compels students to individually engage and own particular subjects. It is also, fundamentally, a moral good. It democratizes the classroom and turns a vehicle that was once used to produce like-minded bureaucrats into the independent, critical thinkers valued by today’s economy and society.

DI, of course, has its detractors. Some feel that it is onerous: How can one teacher be expected to teach simultaneously in 20 different ways? This far outstrips the demands that can logically, let alone ethically, be placed on any employee. Equally if not more troubling is that personalization can be a pathway to deviance. Some believe that allowing students to follow their own paths, without expert guidance, only leads to trouble: lowering standards of quality, encouraging the wallowing in falsehoods, and perhaps even leading to some to subject-specific blasphemy (whether in Judaics or mathematics).

What both DI’s advocates and detractors miss, though, is that it is already an unavoidable reality. Teachers have only a certain amount of instructional time, and it can be monopolized quite quickly. Various studies have shown that extroverts, boys, high achievers, those with learning disabilities, and those whom the teacher simply likes more—all can easily monopolize the bandwidth of even the most well-intentioned educator. In other words, teachers already differentiate based on a variety of criteria. The question, then, is not, To DI or not to DI? but, To what extent can educators DI intentionally?

For me, this question hits uncomfortably close to my own educational practice. Two years into teaching, I came to the realization that my enthusiasm for my subject was unintentionally limiting the types of students I could reach. On the drive home after a particularly difficult class, I asked myself, what if my students’ apathy was not about the subject per se and more about my own inability to understand how they might be able to connect with it?

My love of my discipline, on a good day, may have resonated with a quarter of my students. Teaching those students was a joy. But I realized that being an educator meant finding a way to reach as many of my students as possible. It meant creating slightly less alienating experiences for students who felt that educational institutions are, intrinsically, disenfranchising. Reflecting on my own education, too, I wondered whether my personal inclination toward a particular subject reflected not my own interest but rather more my teachers’ passion. What if I was guilty of allowing the love I had for my subject to limit the love my students might develop, if I could only get myself, my ego, out of the way?

This realization disabused me of a claimed shared by both DI proponents and detractors. Namely, that I could have control over my classroom. I don’t mean control in a disciplinary, classroom-management sense. I mean the hubris to think it was I who knew how to connect students to a subject in the best way. While I might be an expert in my subject, I knew I could never be an expert in the many and varied ways in which my students experienced my classroom.

Differentiated instruction, on a higher plane, became a question not of what tools or strategies I use to allow my students ownership and access. It became a question about how I could design a classroom that took seriously the fact that students are the ultimate arbiters of their learning experience. For me, the question at the heart of DI was simple: How do you build a classroom for people who can choose to tune you out anytime they want?

And therein lies the rub. Differentiation insists that the core question of education design shifts from, How can I get my students to the curricular benchmarks I’ve set? to, How can I build various experiences for students to opt into?

In a world where students can wait out, tune out or fake out teachers by “doing school” instead of actually learning, this shift in thinking matters now more than ever.

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HaYidion Differentiation Fall 2017
Fall 2017