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Re: [Phys-l] differentiated instruction

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 instruction.

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 teaching.

(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 instruction. "

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 instruction.

(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 the tutoring.

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
Bluffton University
1 University Drive
Bluffton, OH 45817