Monday, June 15, 2015

Is it really "differentiated"?

George Couros is one of those speakers that draws you in and gets you thinking.  I have seen him 3 times now, twice in my district and once in Michigan.  He does what any great teacher should do, asks questions to get others to critically think.  And not surprisingly, he does just that with his question, "Is learning really 'differentiated' if people have different paths to all eventually get to the same point? What do you think?"  The comments that occur after that question is where things really start to take shape.  George simply provides the question to get things rolling and if you take a look at the feed you will notice he continues to ask questions to elicit more conversation.

What I love most about this question is it should have educators talking about meeting the needs of students! However, someone quickly points out that "differentiation" is "just a buzzword..." and this has me thinking of the many "buzzwords" of late:
  • 21st century learning
  • innovative & creative
  • global learning
  • digital citizenship
  • differentiated
  • data teams, data walls, data, data, data
  • PLCs
  • UbD, unpack, unwrap, standards, standards, standards
  • formative vs summative assessment, assessment, assessment
  • learning AS, OF, FOR understanding
  • grit
This blog post titled "Let's Drop the Education Buzzwords" by Levi Folly quotes Moilere:

What I have found in my doctoral research is we are indeed re-naming ideas that existed long before the 21st century.  In 1968 Benjamin S. Bloom developed "learning for mastery" and then in 1971 he shortened the name to "mastery learning" (Guskey, 2005).  In the mid-90's, Carol Ann Tomlinson started publishing articles with the word "differentiate" in the title and has since published a slew of books on the topic.  As we see, the wording or phraseology has morphed some over the years, but the idea of differentiation is not new to education.

Circling back to George's original question, 

"Is learning really 'differentiated' if people have different paths to all eventually get to the same point? What do you think?"

To answer this question, yes.  Yes I think learning is really differentiated when students have different paths to the same point.  The second half of George's question intrigues me, "to all eventually get to the same point?" Not once in my 18 years of teaching have ALL of my students ever ended the school year at the "SAME point".  In my blog post, Differentiated Instruction: Your GPS for Student Learning, I point out that "rarely do all students have the same starting and stopping points" even when trying to reach the same destination.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to differentiate is "to make (someone or something) different in some way".  In the case of teaching this means we make instruction different in some way to help students learn, be it helping struggling students learn the basics or advanced students learn more complex ways of applying learning. When teachers allow students the opportunity to learn different ways, then ALL students are afforded the opportunity to learn forward from their own levels of understanding, but the odds of all students ending the school year at the same point is slim to none.

And so regardless of what you want to call it, "learning for mastery", "mastery learning" or "differentiated instruction" I implore you to not dismiss it simply because it may be the current "buzzword".  The simple fact is students have different learning needs.  A one-size-fits-all approach to teaching only leaves students behind and solidifies fixed mindsets.  To put it simply, let me humanize this talk...give your students what they need to learn forward.

Differentiate. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from

Guskey, T. R. (2005). Formative classroom assessment and Benjamin S. Bloom: Theory, research, and implications. Online Submission, , April11-15.