From the Editor: Differentiation

Elliott Rabin, Editor

Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.

Margaret Mead


At its heart, differentiation gets to the essential paradox of education as it has been practiced for most of its history. A teacher teaches to a group of students—10, 20, 200 in a class (as in my college’s intro psych course). But the true target is the individual student, and the proof of the teaching lies in what each singular student learns and makes of that learning. Statistics are important, evaluations are necessary, but what truly matters is the imprint that learning leaves on a student’s mind and heart, and what his or her hands are able to make of it.

It is a cliché that is nonetheless true: Each person is unique, different from all other people. Our uniqueness does not lie (uniquely!) in our genes, as identical twins are not identical people. We are all born with passions and abilities, which can grow, change, mature, be molded. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) famously expounds upon the uniqueness of each individual to convey the religious value of human life: “Therefore everyone must say, ‘For my sake was the world created.’” Each person is a cosmos, with all of the mystery, the unknown, the ability to develop in ways never before witnessed. This philosophy has profound implications for education. If no two people are the same, then they don’t learn the same way and can’t be taught the same way. As the oft-quoted verse in Proverbs begins, “Teach the young person according to his path”—that is, according to his or her unique path of learning and growth.

These sentiments are beautiful, but how does an educator implement them in a classroom that contains many students? How is it possible to teach to all students and to each and every student at the same time? For the past generation, this is precisely the quandary that educational thinkers have wrestled with. Under the banner of differentiation, teachers have been encouraged to change their philosophy, their approach, their instructional methods to give students greater control over their learning. Instead of a “sage on the stage,” a “guide on the side”; rather than students in rows, modular classroom furniture and stations. And a host of pedagogies for “active learning” so students don’t sit bored and overlooked, chewing gum and passing notes: Project-Based Learning, Inquiry Learning, Expeditionary Learning… Alongside of pedagogy has come the ed-tech industry, enabling students to learn by themselves and with others in ways never before possible. These initiatives are all designed to help students discover and develop their own talents, their interests, their voices.

The articles in this issue explore the practice of differentiation both inside and out of the student classroom. Daniel begins the issue with a cri-de-coeur on differentiation as the heart of our Jewish educational mission. By contrast, Eis issues a warning about the potential pitfalls of differentiated instruction, as largely conceived and practiced. Barg introduces the concept and techniques of coaching, borrowed from professional sports and cultivated in charter schools. Gamliel discusses the educational pathway of creative students, and the tensions they may feel with religious instruction. Heyman and Ruderman argue for the educational benefits and moral imperative of an inclusive classroom, while Englander and Micley explain some of the ways that online instruction can strengthen differentiation in a Judaics classroom. The last two pieces in this section consider the relationships that teachers build with students as critical for this work: Ross exploring ways that the Montessori method enables teachers to work one-on-one, and Levine proposing the quality of kindness as an enveloping principle that entails numerous implications for educational instruction and classroom culture.

Our spread of pieces from schools presents a wide assortment of strategies and programs that teachers and administrators employ to support and inspire students in their unique learning paths. The next articles look at ways that differentiation challenges teachers and changes the nature of their work. Novick Salomon and Turetsky respond to several ways that teachers may object to the premises of differentiation on the grounds of fairness. Price and Skolnick Einhorn offer the concept of neurodiversity as a lever for effecting a paradigm shift in teachers’ methods of engagement with student challenges. Exler and Leider describe their approach to training Judaics teachers in differentiated instruction, and Liberty discusses some of the main obstacles that teachers encounter as they transition to personalized instruction. The final articles explore the theme from other angles. Schiffman shows ways that schools of different size and orientation may approach their capital campaigns, and Lindner and Malkus confront the “mah nishtanah” question: What makes a Jewish day school different?

Finally, we are pleased to introduce some new features that represent new initiatives that my Prizmah colleagues are spearheading. On Board showcases reflections by board members throughout the field and parallels the work that Ilisa Cappell and her team are doing with dozens of day schools through Prizmah’s Board Fitness program (see page 62). In a guest column, Matt Williams, a rising scholar of Jewish education, approaches the issue theme informed by wisdom culled from scholarly research and personal experience. And a hat tip to Andrea Hernandez, whose graphic illustration helps to summarize and enliven the ideas of the last article.

We wish day schools collectively, and all your stakeholders individually, a new year blessed with growth. May the uniqueness of your school shine in the neshamot of your students and cast its light far and wide throughout your community.

Return to the issue home page:
HaYidion Differentiation Fall 2017
Fall 2017