Why Differentiation Misses the Mark for Gifted Students

orchestra

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Last week I wrote Differentiation: Attainable or Somewhere Over The Rainbow which addresses some common objections related to differentiated instruction. One of these arguments being that many educators and gifted education advocates believe the needs of gifted students are not being met in the ‘regular’ classroom through differentiation.

Dr. Jim Delisle, author and gifted education expert, brought this topic to the forefront in his 2015 EdWeek Commentary Piece, Differentiation Doesn’t Work. I was first alerted to Delisle’s article via a Facebook update posted by a teacher I attended graduate school with thirteen years earlier. I remember initially feeling quite defensive when I saw her post:

Differentiation Westman.png

Delisle claims (and my former classmate concurs) that differentiation is nothing more than a great proposition which is impossible to achieve: “It seems to me that the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals.”

Delisle goes on to warn readers that it is our high-achieving students who stand to lose the most from the unfulfilled promise of differentiation and suggests there is only one possible solution to meet the needs of these students: “Differentiation might have a chance to work if we are willing, as a nation, to return to the days when students of similar abilities were placed in classes with other students whose learning needs paralleled their own.”

Delisle is not entirely wrong.
If a teacher wants to differentiate effectively in a traditional classroom setting, I agree with Delisle when he says, “Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.”

Effectively differentiating instruction in a customary classroom setting (teacher imparts knowledge and students show they retain the information) is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Of course, one teacher cannot conduct three different lectures simultaneously. And, it is quite likely that we have experienced assigning group-work where the high kids do all of the work.  And, ultimately, when a teacher in a traditional classroom is presented with a class made up of all types of learners they are forced to teach to the middle which will undoubtedly build frustration for gifted and struggling students alike.

Therefore, I can understand when Delisle suggests reverting back to tracked classes, with students sorted neatly into groups with similar learners. All students deserve the opportunity to learn at a pace that is appropriate for them and tracking students certainly does make pacing easier.

Except, we are solving the wrong problem
Now, before the gifted folks jump on me again, let me preface, as a former gifted teacher and a differentiation instructional coach, I am an ardent proponent of identifying gifted students just as we identify special education students. The needs of gifted students, without question, require special consideration, action plans, follow-through, and monitoring.

With that being said, I also strongly believe that these students’ needs can be met through differentiated instruction in a “regular” classroom. Because, differentiation in it of itself, is not the problem. Rather, our nation’s lack of ubiquitous implementation of differentiated instruction is a symptom of a much larger problem.

The actual issue is the lingering remnants of the factory model/mindset of education still largely ingrained in our educational system today. Case in point, tracking students is a direct result of schools which prepared students for predetermined career paths.

During the industrialization era students were placed on tracks with finite destinations: factory worker, tradesman, professional with a higher-level degree. Future tradesman sat next to other future tradesman, future professionals learned alongside other future professionals.

But, putting students on these same tracks today poses a significant problem because these tracks no longer lead to known destinations. As first indicated in a report from  U.S. Department of Labor called  Future Work Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century and later analyzed for potential implications and solutions for schools by ISTE Connects, 65% of jobs to become available in the future have yet to be created.

Job trends since 1999 support this statistic as new jobs and categories in the services provided industry continue to experience exponential growth, while other industries like manufacturing, continue to trend downward (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

With this information in mind, our focus must shift from preparing students to interact with similar learners to finding ways to ensure our students can productively collaborate with all types of learners. Doing so is critical for our students’ long-term success.

Therefore, teachers must conduct orchestras, not trains.
If our ever-evolving world is not a compelling enough reason to focus on the real problem, let’s also consider this, even in a gifted or tracked class, teachers still need to differentiate for their students.

Programming alone will not meet students’ needs. In Beyond Gifted Education, Designing and Implementing Advanced Academic Programs, authors Scott Peters, Michael Matthews, Matthew McBee, and D. Betsy McCoach state, “Not all students who are labeled gifted require the same things in order to receive an appropriate educational experience. Just as not all gifted students require the same services, a given individual (gifted or not) does not automatically need the same services year after year.”

And, this is the bottom line. Learners’ needs, gifted or not, are fluid. Learning is fluid. However, our current educational system is largely static. We hear a lot talk about student and teacher innovation. Many times we look to the silver bullet (as Peter Dewitt points out in Can We Destroy the Silver Bullet Mentality Before It Destroys Us?) which takes on the form of implementing a tech tool or making something fit in our current practice without changing what we have “always done”.

But, what is really innovative is doing what needs to be done to help shape the next education model- one where the academic and social-emotional success of all students is the only priority. Differentiating instruction for our students needs is one of the ways to do this, and as indicated above, differentiated instruction is more effective when we consider the environment in which we try to implement it and adjust accordingly.

But, How?
I wish I had a linear plan for how to systemically change our educational model. But, I don’t.  I also recognize there are people who consider school reformers to be idealistic. And, I don’t know, maybe we are.

But, I also know there are steps educators can take to collectively propel us forward or there are things we can do (or not do) to ensure we stay stagnant. It is up to us to decide which route we want to take. As country music singer Jimmy Dean said, “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”

I can’t help but think that, maybe, if we all adjust our sails, we may actually have a shot at changing the direction of the wind.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Education Radio @BAMRadioNetwork 

 

Differentiation: Attainable Or Somewhere Over The Rainbow?

differentiation cleaning things up

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” Jim Barksdale

If you want to get an educator’s attention, just say the word differentiation. Call me naive, but until last summer, I had no idea that this word provoked such a wide range of reactions from all education stakeholders.

Then, last August, I wrote my first guest blog post for Finding Common Ground, Yes Differentiation Is Hard. So, Let’s get It Right, and the floodgates opened. It turns out, people have strong feelings about differentiation, and I have been listening and gathering specifics on these views.

Since the post was published, I have written and presented about differentiation quite a few times. Most recently, I presented alongside Carol Ann Tomlinson at ASCD Empower17 and co-moderated #ohedchat on the topic. Every time I write or present on differentiation, I note the questions and comments readers or participants make, and I have found some common themes in response to the topic of differentiation, such as:

  • Teachers often feel unequipped to differentiate effectively.
  • Administrators don’t always recognize differentiation when they see it, or they think they see “differentiation” when what they really see is “different”.
  • Many gifted education advocates believe the needs of gifted students cannot be met in the ‘regular’ classroom through differentiation.
  • There is a pervasive generalization and misunderstanding of the words: assessment and data.

Over time, I plan to address the first three bullet points in detail, but for the purposes of this post, I want to explore the fourth item- the words assessment and data. The misleading associations with these words (assessment=test, data=numbers) have become a giant barrier for teachers who strive to differentiate instruction yet struggle to do so effectively.

The Wicked Witch of The West Assess
I was never the best geometry student, but the one thing that stuck with me was “all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares.” The same can be said about assessments, “all tests are assessments, but all not all assessments are tests.”

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines assess as, “to make an approximate or tentative judgment” and tests can certainly do this. However, often times tests are the least effective way to ascertain where students are and what they need. Test results amass a certain type of information and to differentiate successfully, other evaluations (observations, writing samples, conversations) and facets (social-emotional, aptitude, growth) of student performance must be considered.

The way we assess and the assessments we use give us the data we need to inform how to appropriately differentiate instruction for students. Therefore, if we are not using a variety of reliable assessments, our attempts to differentiate instruction often fall flat because the data we try to use doesn’t give us the information we need.

Follow The Yellow Brick Road Data
The word data does not have a warm connotation. Saying “data” in conjunction with student learning often feels sterile and uncaring. I often hear sentiments like, “students are more than a number.” And, when I presented with Carol Ann Tomlinson she responded to a question about using data with, “data sounds like something spit out by a machine.

And, I agree, students are more than a data point. They are more than a number spit out by a machine. And, so is data. Data is more than just numbers, and it can indeed be gathered and appraised in compassionate ways.

Let’s look at an analogous situation: a child’s visit to his pediatrician. When a child visits his doctor, he is more than a number there, too. Therefore, in order to form a diagnosis,  pediatricians look at a variety of evidence, some which comes from a lab or machine (weight, temperature, blood count) and some which comes from other assessments (conversations, questionnaires, observing the patient perform a task). Yet, there is little complaint about using multiple types of data in a medical setting. In fact, I surmise that if a doctor made a diagnosis without various types of data, there would be quite a bit of protesting.

So, what is the difference?

In education, we seem to think that the only usable data we have are numbers: test scores, IQ scores, attendance rates, etc.  This is like saying the only data a doctor can use is the patient’s height, weight, blood pressure, etc.

If this were the case, think of how many misdiagnoses would be made from only using these pieces of evidence? The doctor would not have some of the vital information (data) he needs to diagnosis the patient and prescribe a course of action.

Instead, doctors are also highly dependent on information that comes directly from the patient via conversations and observations. This is data which is collected with sensitivity and not calculated by an algorithm. A doctor uses information from all of these sources to differentiate his approach for his patients, so they thrive.

The same holds true for using data to differentiate for our students in the classroom. When we say the word data in education, we are simply referring to the different types of evidence we gather and consider to differentiate instruction for our students, so they thrive.

There’s No Place Like Home A Data Dashboard
In summary, differentiation is a natural byproduct of collecting and using the right information and the traditional methods of teacher data collection are quickly (if not already) obsolete.

Luckily, help is here. In Data Dashboards a High Priority in National Ed-Tech Plan, Education Week contributor Malia Herman states:

“The push for wider and better use of data (dashboards)–which allow educators to examine and connect relevant student data from multiple sources–is growing stronger…learning dashboards integrate information from assessments, learning tools, educator observations, and other sources to provide compelling, comprehensive visual representations of student progress in real time.”

To keep the analogy going, a data dashboard is like a patient’s chart at his doctor’s office. This is the place where all of the information is housed on individual students and their growth over time can be contemplated. And like a patient’s chart, only certain people are privy to individual student’s information. This comprehensive view of a student makes differentiating for their needs more accessible, attainable, and sustainable.

What are your thoughts? What is your experience using data to differentiate instruction? What successes and struggles have you encountered? Please comment below or tweet your response so we can learn from each other.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.