Differentiation in Baby Steps, Part 1: Don’t Differentiate Yourself Into Insanity

differentiate cartoonHave you ever seen this cartoon before?

I have — about two dozen times, and it frustrates me; it’s often the first slide in a presentation on differentiated instruction in the classroom , and while yes, it makes a point, it raises some serious concerns.

If I understand the logic: the goldfish should not be asked to climb a tree. Let her, um… do a modern interpretive swim.

The idea behind differentiated instruction is simple: different students have different abilities and limitations, and rather than expect all students to learn and to work in the same way, we should tailor our teaching, assignments, projects, and assessments to be as inclusive as possible. (For in depth reading on differentiated instruction, check out some books by the guru, Carol Ann Tomlinson. She’s written a book on about every angle you can imagine – from problem based learning to focusing on the humanities.)

Sounds good, right?

I’d like to complain about this cartoon, however, and in doing so, make a couple of points to help new educators step, in a balanced way, down the path of differentiating in their classrooms.

burnoutThe First Caveat to the Cartoon: A burned-out teacher who differentiates is worse than a healthy teacher who doesn’t… yet.

The cartoon suggests something which, in the ears of a well-intentioned, eager, beginner educator, can result in disaster: if you don’t differentiate, you might as well be asking a fish to ride a bicycle. Or climb a tree.

This is a problem; while the premise of differentiation is simple, the execution is beyond complex. A teacher can tweak any element of the students’ class experience in numerous ways – from daily work to the final project.

This creates great opportunity! Hooray!

This also can create mental and physical collapse for the beginner educator.

kittenMy first two years of teaching, I never knew when enough was enough: staying up late enough. Familiarizing myself with enough texts. Including enough activites. Designing enough adventures. Two o’clock in the morning, in the blue glow of my computer, still dissatisfied with the unit plan, I would shake my fists at the ceiling and yell, “How is a mere mortal to teach?!”

That is not a sustainable model for a career of teaching.

And that was before differentiation came to town.

The Second Caveat to the Comic: Students are cats

3catsThe second caveat to the comic is that a room full of students is generally not a monkey sitting next to a horse sitting next to a goldfish. It’s more like… three different kinds of cats. One is the jumpy cat which zings under a bed when you walk into the room, the second is the cat that won’t get up off your lap even when you stand up, and the third enjoys raking his claws across every cloth surface he can find, including your shins.

Yes, students are unique. Yes, you should take steps, when the time is right, to learn differentiation. Yes, eventually, you will include many forms of differentiation for many types of cat.

Learning to reach the next plateau of any life stage involves discovering that it’s much more complex than you ever would have expected. No worthy growth goal can be tackled in a single, frenzied dash.

karatekidAs my most significant teacher mentor once said, “Daniel-san. First learn walk. Then learn fly.”

Then, learn climb tree.


To continue to Part 2 on this series, click here.

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