Fads trump effective teaching

Differentiated Instruction — grouping students by abilities, personal interests and “learning styles” — is a time-wasting fad that is backed by no evidence of effectiveness, writes education consultant Mike Schmoker in Ed Week.

. . .  I saw frustrated teachers trying to provide materials that matched each student’s or group’s presumed ability level, interest, preferred “modality” and learning style. The attempt often devolved into a frantically assembled collection of worksheets, coloring exercises, and specious “kinesthetic” activities. And it dumbed down instruction: In English, “creative” students made things or drew pictures; “analytical” students got to read and write.

In these ways, Differentiated Instruction, or DI, corrupted both curriculum and effective instruction. With so many groups to teach, instructors found it almost impossible to provide sustained, properly executed lessons for every child or group-and in a single class period. It profoundly impeded the teacher’s ability to incorporate those protean, decades-old elements of a good lesson which have a titanic impact on learning, even in mixed-ability classrooms . . .

No research supports DI’s effectiveness, Schmoker writes. Cognitive scientists have debunked the “learning styles” theory that underlies DI. But it is now the reigning orthodoxy.

We know a lot about how to teach well, he argues.

First, we need coherent, content-rich guaranteed curriculum — that is, a curriculum which ensures that the actual intellectual skills and subject matter of a course don’t depend on which teacher a student happens to get.

. . . we need to ensure that students read, write, and discuss, in the analytic and argumentative modes, for hundreds of hours per school year, across the curriculum.

Finally, students learn when “lessons start with a clear, curriculum-based objective and assessment, followed by multiple cycles of instruction, guided practice, checks for understanding (the soul of a good lesson), and ongoing adjustments to instruction.”

In the comments, teachers argue that Schmoker’s definition of effective teaching is differentiated instruction. If so, there’s nothing “differentiated” about DI.

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  1. Why is it ineffective to group students by abilities? Learning styles differences may have been debunked; have abilities differences been debunked as well?

  2. Michael N. says:

    I cannot speak for learning styles and personal interests, but I can speak for learning abilities. I was bored out of my mind in 5th grade because the work was the same for all students, yet way below what I was capable of. My parents caught on to this, switched schools to one where the students were equality abled, and I was in heaven – it was awesome being challenged and then meeting that high challenge. Finally, I was actually studying. Boredom was gone and the wasting of my life of being slowed-down waiting other kids was over. Ability grouping does matter and retarding a student’s real growth in the interest of being “nice” to other kids is a travesty that borders on abusive. I thank God my parents did not listen to teachers when they were told that keeping me at that level was the best for me. I still am grateful they were ahead of those teachers.

  3. Schmoker is right, but he conflates two different ideas — ability grouping, which pretty much obviates the need for differentiation according to difficulty; and differentiated instruction, which is often a response to the very wide range of abilities and/or stages of readiness within a classroom. In my experience, differentiating to play to students varying interests is a good idea, not time consuming, and doesn’t fly in the face of the elements of powerful lessons that he so well describes. Allowing children to choose topics to read about or report on (from within the content area that’s at hand) is not difficult. But differentiating for different readiness levels, to create an entire different set of lessons,at different levels, for several groups, in each curriculum area, is just a joke. Beyond maybe 3 reading groups in K-5, there is no way to conduct a coherent, step-wise curriculum that meets each child’s needs and at the same time prepares each child to be promoted to the next grade, using this fad. It’s far better to simply follow the guidelines that Schmoker notes, realizing that slower learners will need all of the distributed practice and quicker learners will not. The frequent checks for understanding allow the teacher to target extra help (not a different lesson) to those who need it.

  4. Agreed with both the above. I am forced to differentiate instruction because none of the schools I teach in will “track” students. So I differentiate by ability grouping, and the research on this is unambiguous. In fact, the recent California Framework for Teaching Math acknowledges that ability grouping leads to more effective instruction.

    Differentiating in any other sense is a waste of time.

  5. have abilities differences been debunked as well?

    They’re taboo because they result in visible differences between groups.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    Except when they can be used as prima facie evidence of something someone needs to prove, usually involving money.

  7. Michael E. Lopez says:

    First, we need coherent, content-rich guaranteed curriculum — that is, a curriculum which ensures that the actual intellectual skills and subject matter of a course don’t depend on which teacher a student happens to get.

    Think about the model of teaching that Schmoker is advocating in this revealing little snippet: it is a model in which the content of the course exists as a complete whole before the teacher is selected. In other words, the teacher need bring nothing substantive to the classroom at all. Such a teacher’s expertise is completely and utterly procedural; he or she has been trained to be a delivery vehicle for knowledge from which the teacher herself may or may not be disconnected.

    Students learn from their teachers, and they learn best when the teachers know what they are talking about. If any of you think back to your time in high school, even if at the time you didn’t have the words or experience to articulate it, you knew instinctively which teachers knew their subjects and which were just going through the motions. There’s an entirely different sort of connection established between a student, a teacher, and the subject matter when the teacher is an involved expert in the field. It’s a better connection, one that is far more valuable (I think) than any degree of expertise in teaching methods. That’s not to say that teaching methods are not valuable, for they surely improve a teacher. But a teacher with no connection to the material cannot serve as the basis for the creation of such a connection between the student and the subject matter: teachers cannot teach what they do not know or do not care about.

    Getting a uniform, complete, guaranteed curriculum will surely plug all the holes in the student’s disconnected body of knowledge. But it’s also going to take the focus off the most effective engine of education: teacher engagement. It will constrict the freedom of teachers to spend a great deal of time and effort on the things that they care about and less time on the things that they don’t.

    Just by way of example, if a history teacher really loved Rome and Greece, and didn’t care so much for the politics of the early 1800’s, he could (one imagines in a world not dominated by uniform curriculum) spend 5 weeks each on Greece and Rome, and perhaps 2 weeks on Pre-Civil War America. During those 10 weeks of ancient history, students would get a chance to see someone who was doing history and, more importantly, enjoying it. They could learn more about history and its importance just by witnessing it being taught than they would ever learn from absorbing the knowledge contained in a curriculum.

    Advocates of a “guaranteed” curriculum think that the curriculum is what is to be learned. But it isn’t. The curriculum is the setting for learning. What is to be learned is how to be a thinking, inquisitive, engaged and successful human being. Now I’m decidedly not one of those people who thinks that critical thinking and higher analysis can happen in the absence of hard skills: you’re not going to be able to think critically about history unless you know some history. But you don’t need to know ALL of history to think critically about it. You just need to know some things for certain, and know them well. Being an intellectually active and engaged human being does not require that you be omnicompetent.

    This is why Schmoker’s view of the world is so wrongheaded: putting the focus on guaranteed curriculum, where the teacher explicitly doesn’t matter, means that students aren’t guaranteed to see someone who is intellectually engaged with the material. That’s what we should be wanting to guarantee. Schmoker’s is the creed of the bureaucratic ass-coverer: “Well, I don’t know what went wrong in that class, but I put a curriculum that demanded that students learn X, Y, and Z. We must have a faulty delivery system, because the knowledge was there.”

    It would be far, far better students come out engaged — or at least having seen what engagement looking like — with only a few things than a vague, disconnected sum of curricular knowledge. The student who has seen engagement with the material will know, should his or her fancy ever be piqued to learn about the Civil War, for instance, what to do with his or her interest.

  8. “it is a model in which the content of the course exists as a complete whole before the teacher is selected. In other words, the teacher need bring nothing substantive to the classroom at all”

    That’s nonsense. I teach General Chemistry. There is a national curriculum for this class, and any General Chemistry class will cover the same basic material. Are you really saying that every college General Chemistry class is the same, and the quality of the instructor doesn’t matter? That certainly hasn’t been my experience in evaluating transfer students — some of them had great classes and some were dreadful. Some learned the bare minimum and some really had a deep understanding of the material. But all of them took the same curriculum.

  9. Michael Lopez: it’s not that the teacher doesn’t matter; not at all. And I agree that students benefit when teachers put some extra time into the parts of the curriculum that most excite them, and where their knowledge is deepest. Especially at the high school level. But ChemProf is right; there are core ideas, skills, and content domains that have to be included in any course that’s a pre-requisite to a higher level course. A really good textbook or syllabus helps the teacher make sure those areas are given their due. With, of course, more wiggle room for literature and history.

  10. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Are you really saying that every college General Chemistry class is the same,


    and the quality of the instructor doesn’t matter?


    What I am saying is (1) that those who favor uniform curricula want every class to be the same and want instructor quality to be solely a matter of curricular transmission; and (2) that pursuing such an end necessarily erodes something that is quite vital to the learning process.

    Yes, there does at least appear to be some sort of “natural order” to the acquisition of knowledge: basic addition before calculus, perhaps. Atomic theory before esterification. But what of it? What about the presence of a natural order of knowledge mandates a uniform curriculum? What does the relation between addition and calculus have to say at all about how human beings organize their schools?

    The only possible answer I can come up with is that we don’t trust our teachers to know their subjects well enough to know what needs to be taught. And that is precisely my point — that the focus on uniform curriculum goes hand in hand with the view of teachers as content-transmission experts rather than subject-matter experts. But expert chemists don’t need a uniform curriculum to tell them what needs to be learned in a chemistry class.

    So — the counter argument: In fact, our teachers aren’t subject-matter experts, and we don’t in fact trust them to design their own curricula based on their knowledge of the field. Maybe that’s the case. But if it is, then it seems to me that we have bigger problems, and that maybe we should think about how to solve those.

  11. Maybe knowing the field and being able to design a curriculum are separate skills.

  12. Roger Sweeny says:

    Michael E. Lopez,

    Your long post raises a very profound question, which I think is prior to the question of how much a teacher’s expertise matters, namely what should be in a particular course in the first place.

    I teach high school physics. People who do physics research have math as their second language. They are very comfortable with saying, “Here are the basic laws. A series of mathematical manipulations says that they imply this result. So I trust this and believe it.” High school students are not like that and if you try to teach them that way, they will (at best) memorize what you said, spit it back at you, and then forget it.

    Several decades ago, Paul Hewitt was teaching physics for non-science majors at San Francisco State. He decided that, for them, the math was getting in the way. So he developed “conceptual physics,” a physics course with pretty much no math. You can now get a text and a whole “Conceptual Physics” program for both college and high school students.

    I love the text. If you read it carefully and think about it and actually understand it, you know more physics that 95% of the people who pass high school physics.

    But lots of people in physics say it’s not “real physics.” Some go so far as to say that you can’t do real physics without calculus. You certainly can’t be a physics major without calculus and a math frame of mind.

    A physics major will “think like a physicist” and that is very different from the way a17-year-old thinks. How much a physics course should move people along the road of thinking like a physicist and how much it should leave them with some basic understanding of the universe is not an easy question to answer.

    The answer will depend, among other things, on who your students are and how much you think you can do both.

  13. I would hope it would be expected as a minimum requirement that a teacher be a subject matter expert in the field he teachers.

    That said, being a subject matter expert in no way implies being able to design a curriculum, a task that requires one to consider much more than his/her personal interests.

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    Has there ever been an educational fad which was free? As the skeptics say, follow the money.


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