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Differentiated Instruction, Whatever That Is: Part II

I was confused by the concept of Differentiated Instruction. My students have different needs, especially when it comes to reading. Yet creating work for each group of kids created a fragmented environment in which there was little sense of communal learning or a common goal. I spoke to Ms. OldSchool, one of the finest, most experienced teachers in the building.

“Mr. Arp,” she said, “What you have to understand is that Differentiated Instruction is another word for what I’ve been doing for 20 years.

“In fact,” Ms OldSchool added, “every new idea they come up with is just another word for things that I have always done.” She told me to forget about my auditory learners and visual learners, my lesson plans that catered to the kinesthetic or experiential students. She also, importantly, told me to forget about my data.

“Data,” she said, “is important for the big picture. You know you need to incorporate problem areas, such as short vowel sounds or digraphs, into the unit. But making a day’s lesson about short vowels is going to be boring.” The secret to Differentiation, in her view, was to keep all students interested in the lesson. “If they are excited,” she said with authority, “they are learning.”

So I put on a play. We created a script from one of our favorite math books, “The Greedy Triangle,” and gave out jobs. We had students drawing posters of pentagons, of squares and hexagons. Students wrote lines for the script, and chose which parts of the book should be in the play. We had actors, stage-hands and set-designers. Everyone, in other words, was involved, in some capacity. And it was exciting to move the tables out of the way and rehearse during math period. It culminated in a performance and, perhaps even more satisfying, wonderful results on the Shapes unit test.

But this is a controversial portrait of Differentiated Instruction. Sure, children were able to involve themselves in the unit of study through a variety of activities suited for different learning styles (reading, writing, painting, drawing and acting). But it would be difficult to point to any data or assessment information that informed my lesson-planning. Were my principal to ask why I chose to give each kid his or her job, I could only respond: That is the job that he or she wanted. This is not, as they say, Data-Driven Instruction, which is an integral aspect of Differentiated Instruction.

So at this point I can only pose the question: is Ms. OldSchool’s analysis correct? Is the goal of Differentiated Instruction (meeting the needs of every student) adequately achieved by generating projects that interest every student? It is certainly more intuitive to design a project than to print different worksheets, and it feels more like teaching. But can it be called Differentiation? An answer to this question would help beginning teachers like myself.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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