“Mirror Mirror On The Wall”: Differentiated Instruction and the Fairness Challenge

Deeply ingrained attitudes and mindsets regarding fairness and equality may influence a teacher’s decision to embrace or reject differentiated practices. Questions relating to student equality, relative distribution of support among students, and reasonable expectations of teachers may weigh on educators when considering implementation of differentiation. A powerful predictor of whether, how, how often and how successfully a teacher will differentiate his or her instruction is the teacher’s mindset about fairness and justice within differentiation. That attitudes shape behavior is not a revolutionary idea. In terms of differentiation, however, certain deeply ingrained personal and societal ideas may either facilitate or hamper this critical pedagogic process. Few educators disagree with the notion that students benefit from personalized, tailored approaches. But mindsets regarding justice and fairness, which one would assume provide strong advocacy for differentiation, may create significant cognitive dissonance and result in a reluctance to engage in differentiated practice. We explore three ideas below, which, in isolation or together, contribute to mindsets that impede successful differentiation.

Idea 1: Democracy is an important ideal; treating some individuals or groups differently from others is unfair and undemocratic.

In the context of differentiation, the ideal of democracy may engender the sense that any way in which students within a group or class are treated differently is inherently unfair. Grass-roots and organized political and social movements have worked tirelessly to ensure equal access and equal rights for all. Such efforts have argued for, and often enabled, women, people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and those with different abilities to receive equal rights under the law. The application of this democratic ideal in schools may result in the erroneous idea that allowing different opportunities for some students or adjusting the instruction or assessment they receive is unfair and runs counter to the principles of democracy. It is necessary to consider the democratic ideal with greater nuance to realize that providing all students with identical educational materials, procedures and assessments does not ensure the equality that is critical for true justice. Differentiation is not the antithesis of equal rights and access. In fact, given the diverse needs of learners, it would seem impossible to provide a fair educational experience by giving the same content and process to all. A parallel in medicine makes this point clear. We would consider it neither just nor advisable to offer chemotherapy to all patients, whether they have the flu or a sarcoma. Justice does demand that anyone with cancer, and everyone with the flu, regardless of social class, or financial means, should receive what they need to effect the best outcome. In the same way, each student needs access not to an identical learning prescription, but to an individualized “treatment” that will promote the best outcome.

Idea 2: Adding supports and resources for some students gives them an unfair advantage.

This attitude was seen in our own research on online discussion posts in a course on supporting diverse learners. A common concern among teachers is that giving select students easier work, while imposing greater demands on others, is simply unfair.

Revisiting a school’s educational mission is a critical first step in addressing this concern. Expressed therein should be a commitment to the belief that the job of educators is to help all students learn and grow. After setting educational standards and goals, the main task is to assist students in reaching or exceeding them. With a commitment to growth and to actualization of individual potential comes the natural understanding that different students will need different avenues to get there. This extends not only to the added supports and resources that would benefit the learning of the weaker students but also to the enrichment and extension opportunities that would support the growth and advancement of the academically gifted students. A culture of growth and learning also means that typical learners never receive “busywork” so as to allow time to work with struggling students, and that struggling students never receive busywork to keep them occupied and get them through the day.

There is a prevailing mindset that differentiation offers an easy way out—perhaps a “cop out”—for students who struggle with the traditional curriculum, when in fact the opposite is true. In his book Fair Isn’t Always Equal, Rick Wormeli illustrates this misunderstanding through the example of a near-sighted student sitting in the back of the classroom. Imagine removing this student’s eyeglasses in order to make it fair to the students who don’t wear glasses. Denying him his eyeglasses is not leveling the playing field; it is actually giving the student an “out,” because then he can excuse himself from learning because of not being able to see the board. The eyeglasses are the support that allows him to engage in, and be optimally challenged by, the task at hand. Supports provided in a differentiated classroom assure that students cannot “cop out” of the learning experience and simply choose to fail. A differentiated classroom assures that all students are challenged in accordance with their needs so that their learning is stretched as much as possible and they are held to high academic expectations.

Possibly the greatest concern surrounding unfair advantages for struggling students relates to issues of grading. How can students who were provided with different learning activities, additional time or alternate assessments be graded using the same system of reporting as their peers who didn’t have the benefit of these modifications? How can transparency be maintained when the same grade may be reflective of drastically different levels of support and accommodations?

In considering fair and honest systems of grading, reports on students’ academic achievements should always extend beyond the traditional grade. Anecdotal reports, descriptive notes and ongoing progress reports are communication opportunities that could clearly convey individual students’ goals, pathways to reach the goals and attainment of them. A balance between honest and transparent reporting on students’ academic achievements and shortcomings, coupled with written reports that provide broader information on the students’ progress and development, has the potential to offer clear and important feedback while motivating learning and propelling all students to grow.

Additionally, differentiation specialist Carol Ann Tomlinson points out that grading and differentiation are not as incompatible as one might think. If the goal of summative assessment is demonstration of mastery of the criteria, as suggested by educational researchers, then the pathway that was adopted to attain the mastery is far less significant than whether or not mastery was attained. Stated differently, if a student needs to hear material explained three more times than his or her peers, or if a student can only articulate certain concepts orally rather than in writing, the learning process and the medium of expression are quite secondary to the fact that the student attained mastery of the target learning goals. Using clear learning objectives as a yardstick for grading, teachers can consider numerous pathways for students to demonstrate mastery of the criteria, without compromising the integrity of the grading or reporting system.

Idea 3: Differentiation is extra work for teachers, and it is unfair to place this burden on them.

Differentiated instruction requires considerable preparation and access to or creation of a wide variety of materials. Jewish day school teachers are tasked with a significant workload, and are often not compensated for sufficient preparatory time during their work day. In addition, whereas secular subject teachers may have access to published materials that are differentiated, or various versions of material, Judaic studies teachers are generally required to create their own materials. Teachers and administrators who accept the idea that differentiation will place additional demands on teachers may dismiss differentiation as unfair. This places what is fair and just for students in competition with what is fair and just for teachers.

It is important to challenge the accuracy of this view. When diverse students struggle in non-differentiated classrooms, teachers are burdened with addressing the resulting behavior issues and with contacting parents extensively to grapple with learning issues. Differentiating instruction is actually a wise investment, front-loading time and effort to smooth the way for productive and efficient class time in the long run. Differentiation is meant to impact the way teachers think, so that they are not planning longer, but planning differently. It allows a shift of emphasis to what students are learning, rather than what the teacher is teaching, and enables teachers to explore how differentiation can serve as important solutions to real struggles.

Additionally, teachers should receive the explicit message that just as each student is an individual on his or her own path to growth and accomplishment, each teacher is a unique individual on a personal journey to maximizing student growth and accomplishment. Incorporating differentiation into one’s teaching is not an all-or-nothing endeavor. It need not entail a total reworking of all a teacher currently does, nor an intense commitment of time and effort. Moving from the idea that it is too difficult, takes too much time, and is unfair to teachers, to accepting the professional responsibility to grow and to meet the needs of all students, may support small, meaningful steps towards differentiation.

Deeply ingrained attitudes and mindsets regarding fairness and equality may influence a teacher’s decision to embrace or reject differentiated practices. Questions relating to student equality, relative distribution of support among students, and reasonable expectations of teachers may weigh on educators when considering implementation of differentiation. A differentiated mindset does not readily challenge the widely accepted notions of fairness. In fact, when considering the many different opportunities offered by differentiation to empower and advance all students, a classroom that supports differentiation may actually be “the fairest of them all.”

Rona Novick PhD, Laya Solomon EdD and Ilana Turetsky EdD
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning