I spent a good decade of my career differentiating instruction for students with learning differences. Drawing on the wealth of research, I dutifully created lessons with a range of learning modalities and designed units where all students had at least a few activities that suited them best. Every teacher I know has done something similar. Here’s why this isn’t the best approach: every student learns differently, so differentiated instruction is highly inefficient.
We all know the problem with differentiation: all students -- regardless of whether they have a diagnosed learning difference or not -- still have to do a lot of activities that don’t all meet their needs, and the teacher exhausts themselves to create a range of activities in the hope that there will be something for everyone. But in reality, every student is unique. Even creating a robust station rotation won’t enable a teacher to meet every single student’s needs. Differentiation is a recipe for both student and teacher fatigue.
This challenge is exacerbated by the reality that sometimes what we label as “learning styles” are not even innate, but are actually learned survival tools. Lisa Damour, in her book Under Pressure, describes a student making 50 flashcards for a test when she actually only has 10 words she doesn’t know; still, she reviews all 50 repeatedly because this is how she has learned to do school and because it earns teacher praise. (This example gets even more frustrating when you consider the research on the relative uselessness of flashcards in general!) There’s nothing innate about flashcard studying. What is actually innate is the way we are hardwired to learn most effectively and efficiently; for most, it isn’t flashcards, but in a differentiated model, we honor difference by teaching every student to use every tool, regardless of usefulness to their unique learning needs.
While well intended, ineffective activities (i.e.: flashcards) are compounded by the inefficiency of the learning routine in the differentiated classroom. Some students need to read an overview to understand the context of a new skill, while others are better served by diving right into an activity and then learning the skill by trying it out, failing, and trying again. Why should the student who likes to read or study first and then do problems have to do 20 problems to show she knows the new skill? After reading and studying, maybe she can show proficiency with just five problems. And why should the student who would rather work through a problem set -- getting it wrong and reverse engineering the answer until she masters the skill -- have to read the chapter in the book before starting the problems? Because, as dutiful differentiators, we do all things for all students and in return we ask all students to do all things we’ve designed.
Although everyone -- teachers, parents/guardians, students, administrators -- can see the problem with differentiated instruction, we don’t like to talk about the problem with individualized instruction: The teacher does all the work. In an individualized pedagogy, each student’s needs and identities are centered at the extreme end of the continuum, but under the shadow of the curriculum. At its worst, individualized instruction is reduced to a pedagogy of teaching rather than a pedagogy of learning. This is because it often removes agency, and therefore strips responsibility, from the student. The practices -- curiosity, struggle, choice -- that promote growth are often absent in individualized instruction because the focus is on getting through the curriculum or smoothing the path to a perfect score. Deep learning doesn’t occur in this space.
Individualized instruction is not a community or school pedagogy. It is a tutoring pedagogy. There are absolutely circumstances where learning alone with the guidance of a learning specialist in exactly the way the student learns best is appropriate, but it isn’t a viable aspect of community learning in a school setting.
The good news is that these aren’t the only two models. Teachers can center students’ identities and interests through a personalized pedagogy. Teachers can create pathways where students access new content and skills in the way that is most effective and efficient for them. And a side benefit of these personalized pathways is that all those differentiated and individualized lesson plans transition nicely to optional pathways in a personalized paradigm, so this is a joyful housecleaning exercise for teachers making the shift.
Learning Pathways -- where teachers design alternative pathways for efficiency, acceleration, and remediation -- motivate learners because they prevent stagnation, plug holes, and minimize inefficiencies. They do this by giving students choice in what they learn and by inviting student voice into how they learn. (It’s not as scary as it sounds.) This keeps students engaged in their learning, ultimately accelerating competency, because they aren’t wasting time on things that don’t help them learn. Pathways allow teachers to meet a range of learner needs because they give students multiple onramps to new content and skills.
Any teacher with some basic edtech knowledge and access to the Google Suite or a LMS can create personalized pathways that leverage all the tools that the teacher has in their differentiation toolbox to make the students do meaningful, useful work via learning pathways. Ok, teachers: Want to try it out? Take a stale lesson, write every single activity on a separate sticky note, stack the sticky notes that essentially accomplish the same things (for example, listening to the lecture and reading the textbook), and let students choose just one activity from each of the stacks. By personalizing instead of differentiating or individualizing, you’ll gain 30 minutes here, 45 minutes there -- for you and for the students -- that you can now reallocate! The first time you do it, use that time you gained to ask the students to share their thoughts on the change.
Differentiation had its place - it taught us to recognize that all students learn differently, and it helped us move away from the sage on the stage model. Individualization still has its place -- there are students who need one-on-one, shoulder-to-shoulder support. But it’s time to move on from these as primarily modalities of classroom instruction; the place to be now is personalization. When teachers stop differentiating/individualizing, and start creating personalized pathways for learning, they will infuse new life into their curriculum and pedagogy so that students can thrive.
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