I suppose it's okay to poke some fun at differentiated instruction.
However, unless it gets derailed, we will be expected to do it both in high
school and in college. Philip Keller hit the nail on the head in his recent
post when he said, "It seems that this idea, like many others in education,
comes up from elementary school and is then imposed at the high school level
where it does not make practical sense." Absolutely... and it has arrived
at the college level as well.
Therefore we better understand what it really is, then we can decide what to
do about this monster. (You can easily determine my bias on this.)
(1) What is differentiated instruction?
(1a) It is not using a variety of teaching techniques in the hope that each
student in the class will be reached by at least one of the techniques. I
called this the "shotgun approach." Repeat... this is not differentiated
In science I think we have been lucky that a multifaceted approach has
always been part of our teaching procedure. We utilize lecture; we utilize
textbooks; we utilize demonstrations; we utilize problem sets; we utilize
labs; students often work collaboratively on one or more of these; we
require writing in lab reports and perhaps other reports; several different
mathematical tools are used; technology readily enhances most aspects of
what we do in presentation (e.g. presentation software), and in analysis
(e.g. spreadsheet software), and in reference (e.g. the Internet).
If utilizing several techniques simultaneously were what differentiated
instruction were all about, science teachers would "rule" this method of
(1b) It is not, as Paul Lulai said: "... differentiated instruction means
offering different options for student to work on that reach the same
general content area. The easy ones get you a D, the more challenging
options could earn as A if done well."
Rather, the goal is that all students would be able to get to the A or at
least B level. We want "no child left behind."
John Clement stated these questions: "Can you give differentiated tests?
Does the state give differentiated tests? Are there differentiated versions
of the SAT?"
That's hitting another nail on the head. As a society we seem to have this
idea that if teachers were doing the right things, that in 13 years of
public school (K through 12) all students will have achieved a particular
level of education. Some might have progressed higher than this bar, but
none shall be below the bar.
This expectation has arrived at the college level such that anyone who
graduated from high school should be able to start college with all career
tracks open to them, and a baccalaureate degree in the chosen career path
can be obtained in four years. Indeed, Governor Strickland (in Ohio) is
pushing "dual enrollment" classes during the last two years of high school
such that students can enter college after graduation from high school as
college sophomores or juniors, such that they get their baccalaureate degree
in two or three years rather than four. This is his way of making college
affordable for everyone; pay for two or three years rather than four.
Yep... were it possible that would cut the cost of college in half right
then and there. And this shouldn't just be for top students because all
students will be "top students" if we meet their personal educational needs
in grades K-12.
(1c) John Clement suggested, "Essentially it looks like differentiated
learning is differentiated spoon feeding. Not only is it impossible in HS,
but it is destructive of real learning." I agree it is probably impossible
or near impossible in high school and college, but I don't think "spoon
feeding" is exactly the right idea.
(1d) I think the closest to the right idea has been expressed by John Denker
when he said, The idea behind "differentiated instruction" has been around
for thousands of years. In the limiting case, it reduces to one-on-one
Denker went on to describe some good examples such as tutoring, music
lessons, apprenticeships, college students going to office hours.
Indeed... this is it... this is what is expected... this is differentiated
(2) Is differentiated instruction possible?
In my case it depends a lot on class size, and also a lot on how many
background holes the student needs to fill in. It also depends on whether
the student is willing to come to office hours, and then be serious about
wanting to learn the material as opposed to expecting me just to work the
problem for them, or do the data analysis for them.
I do a lot of one-on-one tutoring when the student actually comes and
clearly is willing to be tutored rather than spoon feed. I realize I can do
this because I typically have class sizes of 30 or smaller, but in a larger
university this could be possible with good graduate assistants providing
High school is more difficult because there isn't such a thing as "office
hours," and there are no graduate students, and each teacher might be
responsible for more than 100 students.
(3) My alternative to differentiated instruction:
My alternative is not as much an alternative so much as a way to accomplish
it. I believe we need to return to segregation (also called "ability
grouping"). Another necessary aspect of my alternative is the realization
that graduating from high school, and especially graduating from college,
will take longer for some people than for others.
(3a) I believe students should be grouped by needs and/or learning modes so
the teacher would not need to provide as much one-on-one instruction, but
could provide "differentiated instruction" via group instruction.
We used to do this. Why don't we do it anymore? (a) Parents don't want to
acknowledge their child is not in the high-achieving group. (b) It takes
time and testing to figure out the groups, and this costs some money, and
requires some administrator time. (c) If a child needs to be in the
lower-achieving group year after year, yet we want all graduates to achieve
some minimum level of ability at graduation, some students will require more
years to graduate. (d) Teachers will want to teach the high-achieving
students, so there will be personnel struggles to deal with.
My wife (the 5th-grade math teacher forced into differentiated instruction)
enlightened me on another reason why ability grouping is not the "in thing."
She says the current "educational buzz" is that students with special needs
can benefit from watching the behavior of the better students, and
administrators say they don't want to deprive the special-needs students
from this learning experience. I think I'll just let this one hang out
there without further comment.
(3b) In high-school there is some level of segregation by self-selection. I
haven't checked the numbers recently, but several years ago about 50% of
high-school graduates had taken a year of chemistry, and only 20% had taken
a year of physics. In my area of Ohio is it worse than that... about 30%
for chemistry and 10% for physics. Therefore, to some extent, high school
chemistry and physics teachers are buffered from many students with learning
disabilities. But this is changing as the more astute parents realize there
remains somewhat of a "college preparatory" curriculum in high school that
includes four years of math (such as algebra 1, geometry, algebra 2,
trigonometry) and four years of science (such as physical science, biology,
chemistry, physics) and two years of foreign language, etc. These parents
want their children to go to good colleges and become doctors and lawyers
and engineers despite the fact that their children have difficulty learning
in a traditional classroom.
I believe this is why high school science teachers are beginning to be
pushed into differentiated instruction.
In college we used to segregate prepared versus underprepared students by
placement into pre-calculus or calculus-1. Now we need more layers of
segregation. We need two courses at lower level than pre-calculus (basic
math, and college algebra). Of course, if a student is so math deficient
that he needs basic math, then college algebra, then pre-calculus, then
calculus, etc., we ought to be looking at five or six years in college. But
no, parents expect students to graduate in four years, and our
administration tries to make us do this because we don't want to lose
students to other colleges who have a higher rate of graduation in four
years versus five years versus six years.
Likewise, some colleges are large enough to have conceptual physics,
introductory physics, algebra-based physics (also called college physics),
calculus-based physics (also called university physics). Thus, if the
student eventually needs calculus-based physics, she could start at the
appropriate level and work up to it. But does she do this? No, because
that would require more than four years in college. Thus, I get students
coming into my calculus-based physics course as their first physics-content
course since their 9th-grade physical science class. I find myself doing
more and more one-on-one tutoring.
Can't I enforce prerequisites. No. I cannot exclude students without high
school physics, and I can't exclude students who have not had calculus nor
who are taking calculus concurrently, because if I did that my class
enrollment would be cut by at least 50%... or... we would have to tell most
of our students they are now going to have to pay tuition to make up for
what they didn't learn in high school.... oh, and we would have to say, "you
are going to be in college for at least five years." Enforcing
prerequisites in this buyer's market would most likely put me out of a job.
(3c) The point is, to bring back segregation and make it work will be
difficult. Although there are several hurdles, a major hurdle is the need
to convince people that the educational process will take longer than 13
years for some students to graduate from high school, and longer than 4
years for some students to graduate from college.
If we are stuck on the idea of 13 years in public school and 4 years in
college... and if we are stuck on the idea that high school graduates are
ready for college, and college graduates are ready for the work force or for
graduate school... and we don't want to tell some students they aren't good
enough to do this... then we had better be prepared for a lot of one-on-one
instruction (i.e. differentiated instruction). One-on-one instruction
becomes the only hope for some students to make it.
Michael D. Edmiston, Ph.D.
Professor of Chemistry and Physics
1 University Drive
Bluffton, OH 45817