Room for improvement at the top?

Are top students getting short shrift?  Room for Debate looks at Fordham’s study on high flyers.

Differentiation works for all learners, if it’s done well, argues Carol Tomlinson, a Univeristy of Virginia education professor.  In the comments, teachers and parents say it’s nearly impossible to differentiate well when the class includes a wide range of performance levels plus disruptive and special-needs students.

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  1. I think differentiation would be significantly easier in a mixed-age class where all the students are at the same place in the curriculum than in a traditional heterogeneous classroom. Teachers would need to tweak the assignments for kids with LD’s or who are simply younger and therefore have less physical writing ability. But everybody would be at the same general level so it would make differentiation fairly straightforward.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Communism works. If it’s done well.

  3. MagisterGreen says:

    From C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” (the speaker is a demon praising the diabolical efforts to destroy humanity):

    “In that promising land the spirit of ‘I’m as good as you’ has already begun something more than a generally social influence. It begins to work itself into their educational system. How far its operations there have gone at the present moment, I should not like to say with certainty. Nor does it matter. Once you have grasped the tendency, you can easily predict its future developments; especially as we ourselves will play our part in the developing. The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” These differences between pupils – for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences – must be disguised. This can be done at various levels. At universities, examinations must be framed so that nearly all the students get good marks. Entrance examinations must be framed so that all, or nearly all, citizens can go to universities, whether they have any power (or wish) to profit by higher education or not. At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing things that children used to do in their spare time. Let, them, for example, make mud pies and call it modelling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work. Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have – I believe the English already use the phrase – “parity of esteem.” An even more drastic scheme is not possible. Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma — Beelzebub, what a useful word! – by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.

    In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when ‘I’m as good as you’ has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers – or should I say, nurses? – will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.”

    First written over 60 years ago. Prophetic indeed.

  4. I think that the push for “differentiation”, like the push for full-inclusion, mainstreaming, group-work, peer tutoring, some curriculum choices (Everyday Math etc., journaling Readers’/Writers’ Workshop and me, me me) and the elimination of ability grouping and tracking is driven (at least partly, and possibly primarily) by the fact that it allows/creates classrooms where kids of all racial and ethnic groups can be stored and the pretense of equal ability, preparation and motivation can be maintained. That is, until the testing starts and it is discovered (mirabile dictu) that while ALL parents “value education”, only some parents value it enough to turn off the TV, take the kids to the library, make them do homework and make them behave.

  5. Differentiation is extremely difficult to do well. In most pedagogical models of differentiation, the teacher is being asked to separate the class into three levels, or “tiers” of instruction: the strugglers, the grade-level students, and the gifted/talented. The teacher is then asked to design content (same subject, different skill levels) for each of those levels, and to somehow organize the classroom into stations, groups, or assignments that challenges each student as his/her ability.

    The management of that is very difficult. How do you pass out the different, varying assignments without some students feeling cheated/overworked? How do you move chairs or tables around? How does the teacher give instructions for three different tasks during a single hour, and what do the other groups do during that time? How do you test and grade three different levels?

    Differentiation is a theoretical model that can work sometimes, IF the teacher is given (heaps of) time to prepare with colleagues, and has the flexibility to do so. It is near impossible to do in secondary classrooms with blocks of 45 minutes of instruction, intense testing schedules, and 100 or more students per day.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    Shooting an apple off my son’s head with a machine gun works, if it’s done well.

    It almost certainly won’t be done well, so to do it would be cruel, hurtful, bad, no matter how good the intentions. People who push differentiation usually mean well but they end up being cruel and hurtful.

  7. I taught physics for three years. According to the differentiation crowd some kids would understand the concept if presented as an equation, others (apparently the “visual learners”) would understand the graphs, still others (presumably the “auditory learners”) would grok the verbal explanation, and the “kinesthetic learners” would grok everything if we just let them bounce off the walls in a scholastically acceptable manner. Thing is, that a kid who groks equations is likely to grok the other forms of presentation and the kid who can’t grok one can’t grok the others either. It’s a little like sports: the kid who can make the football team is likely to make other teams; the un-athletic kid won’t make any team.

    So, for those who think that differentiation is a general solution, answer the following:

    How do I get auditory learners to understand free-body diagrams? Suppose I succeed in this. What then? Can you imagine a structural engineer — an auditory learner — who can’t understand the terminology or the VISUAL artifacts used by the rest of the engineering team.

    How do I get “tactile learners” (no one’s ever enumerated the various learning styles, so I think this is fair game) to understand magnetic induction? I’m sure the differentiation supporters are salivating now thinking “just have the tactile learners play with magnets — WITH THEIR HANDS!”. That’s not HS physics. That ship sailed in early elementary school. One of the reasons our kids are so poor in physical science is because this ship keeps sailing all the way through 12th grade.

    How do I get the “kinesthetic learners” to grok the photoelectric effect? If you don’t know what that means then you have no business telling me that differentiation will work in my class.

  8. bill eccleston says:

    Roger, that’s a great comment! Let’s dub it the “William Tell Effect.”

    There are only four small groups on earth who believe in differentiation: school committee persons, who were aptly described by Mark Twain as an evolutionary stage just short of idiocy; superintendents, whose livings depend on entertaining the whims of school committees; principals who wish to become superintendents; and, of course, professors of education. The rest of the planet knows that differentiation is a crock, and no one more so than the three million teachers who staff our schools.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Well, there’s one commenter over on Core Knowledge who claims to have managed it successfully–but he’s been doing it for YEARS now, and it seems to have required him to put in 12 hour days at the start….

      The worst “differentiation” I ever had was when my 5th grade teacher let me play Oregon Trail instead of having math class. The best was when my 6th grade teacher gave me a pre-algebra book and told me I could just work through it on my own as long as I still took the same tests and quizzes as the other kids.

      (hmmm.. could this be why I’m so gungho on homeschooling? Because the best differentiation I ever had was always me in a corner alone with an appropriately-leveled book anyway?)

      But hey, some kids practically teach themselves– and they’d probably be best off in study-halls with a helpful moderator rather than in classrooms….

  9. Roger Sweeny says:

    There are some teachers who can pull off differentiation, just like there are some people who could take a machine gun and shoot an apple off my son’s head without hurting him. But they are very rare–and damage is done when people who can’t “do it well” (the other 99%) are told to do it anyway.