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Myth-Busting Differentiated Instruction: 3 Myths and 3 Truths

Myth-Busting Differentiated Instruction: 3 Myths and 3 Truths

27 February, 2016

We know that learning is not one size fits all, and what’s best for some students may not be for others. Yet differentiated instruction (DI) remains elusive as a major part of formal planning. Myths about DI exist despite work by respected advocates such as Carol Tomlinson, Susan Allan, Rick Wormeli, and Gayle Gregory.

The following are the common misconceptions about Differentiated Instruction

Myth #1: DI is a collection of strategies.

There are many books, workshops, and organizations offering “differentiated strategies” that, when used, will instantly have teachers differentiating for their students. Such strategies in isolation rarely have the intended outcome for most or all of the students. The reality is that any strategy can be differentiated if we know the learner’s current skill level. So long as the approach has a track record of supporting learning, it can be turned into a differentiated tool for heightened effectiveness.

Truth #1: DI is a lens for implementing any strategy in all pedagogies.

Consider that effective teachers have numerous tools that they use to meet student needs. DI is a lens for choosing the best tool. Would you use a screwdriver to hammer a nail? That seems obvious, yet there are many learning experiences where a diamond-point screwdriver is used to tighten connections with a screw that needs a flat blade. Diagnosing students based on data helps teachers identify the best tools to design the correct learning experience. Some examples include:

The RAFTs strategy helps students develop writing for a target audience and improving their authors’ craft. Options can be varied for student readiness, skill levels, interests, and/or learning profiles.

Choice is a powerful differentiated tool. Teach students the use of different graphic organizers and note-taking strategies (i.e. Cornell and Scholastic). Once they’ve learned these, students can decide the approach that works best for them.

DI is a lens that we use ongoing during the data analysis and planning process for great strategic impact on student learning. It ensures that we use the correct screwdriver.

Myth #2: DI is incompatible with standardized state testing.

High-stakes tests are pervasive in the fabric of school culture. Everything in education must undergo testing filter so that schools can report results to the wider community about how well students test. If these tests measure mastery of state and Common Core standards, then students need high-quality learning experiences that develop their understanding and application of these learning competencies. When content coverage becomes the focus, everyone loses. To learn, students need the analytical and empathy skills of a teacher. Just because content is covered doesn’t mean that students have learned. DI engages students on successful paths for mastering learning targets.

Truth #2: DI ensures that all students learn and grow in knowledge and application of state and Common Core standards.

Traditional classrooms take a whole-group instruction approach because it is a timesaver for lesson delivery. This timesaver is illusory. Without integrating differentiation based on formatively assessed needs, students shut down as they believe that they cannot succeed. As the knowledge or skills gap widens, the learning obstacle may turn into something too massive to overcome. If we are aware that not all students learn at the same pace and may not process skills and concepts in the same way, then differentiation is the solution to maximizing the number of students who can apply their understanding of standards on high-stakes tests. Pre-planned Differentiation does not take significantly more time to teach a unit. DI uses existing time more effectively to meet needs of all learners. With more students mastering standards, teachers can offer  more in-depth learning experiences.

Myth #3: There is no research that supports DI.

“No research” is a major misconception. It’s frustrating to classroom teachers who see the results of differentiation with their own students to be told by “education experts” that there’s no research supporting their efforts. DI converts strategies and systems to meet the needs of varied learners.

Truth #3: Lots of research focuses on systems and strategies that differentiate to improve student learning.

Like Toto in The Wizard of Oz, if we remove the curtain from some effective learning systems and strategies, we find that differentiation is part of the structure for building student success. Some examples include:

  1. Guided Reading:Fountas and Pinnell, and Anita Iaquinta’s article in Early rChildhood Education Journal
  2. Response to Intervention:RTI Publications, and Susan Demirsky Allan and Yvonne L. Goddard’s ASCD Article.

The focus of such research does not always include DI in the article titles, but the practice is embedded. Indeed, you can find DI infused within any program or system that gathers data on student achievement or growth, evaluates and diagnoses what gaps or enrichments those students need, and then designs and implements a plan to meet those needs.

Look Through the Lens

Through just these few myths and truths, we can see that one-size instruction does not fit all. We also know that classroom education is more complicated, full of competing initiatives which create myths that lure us away from our core purpose: students’ learning needs. We need to ensure that students’ learning needs do not fall in priority and stay above instructor and administrator needs. In this more complex world, differentiated instruction is a critical lens to successful learning experiences for students.