Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Why differentiated instruction fails gifted children

Why is differentiated instruction so controversial?

In a recent commentary, Jim Delisle highlighted the problems inherent in differentiated instruction, how it fails to serve diverse populations of students, how it places impossible demands upon teachers within heterogeneous classrooms, and how gifted students' needs are treated as a lower priority.

Differentiated instruction sounds great in theory; it's the implementation that falls short.

Dr. Delisle received a deluge of comments, some offering praise for his astute critique; others sharply critical of his views, claiming that differentiation really, really works.

Some key points in this debate include the following:

1. Teachers truly want to differentiate and meet every child's needs... but most cannot achieve it in a typical classroom environment.

"Differentiation" lends a name to what good teachers have done for years: accommodate the different learning needs of their students. The concept sounds great in theory. Let's make sure that each child's educational needs are served. Let's have classrooms that offer a range of learning opportunities at any given time. But the reality is that teaching students with diverse educational needs is a monumental task. A typical mixed-ability classroom might include gifted learners, slow learners, ESL students, children with behavioral problems or learning disabilities, children "in the middle" and high achievers.

So how are teachers expected to differentiate instruction within a heterogeneous classroom setting? Carol Ann Tomlinson, a well-known advocate of differentiation, outlines "core principles of differentiated instruction:"
 "One of these is what we call 'respectful tasks.' This means that everybody's work needs to be equally engaging, equally appealing, and equally important." 
While this principle is commendable, it requires a degree of flexibility that few teachers could hope to achieve. Talented, experienced teachers may be able to differentiate instruction some of the time, and do it well. But can this be accomplished on a daily basis? As Dr. Delisle summarized in a rebuttal to his initial commentary: "differentiation in a heterogeneous classroom setting is a difficult, at times impossible, task to complete for a single teacher."

In addition, one of Tomlinson's core principles recommends that schools avoid grouping children based on readiness or skill:
"Another important principle is that of flexible grouping. This means you don't arbitrarily divide students or automatically group them with kids of the same skill level. You need to systematically move kids among similar readiness groups, varied readiness groups, mixed learning-profile groups, interest groups, mixed interest groups, and student-choice groups."
Regardless of concerns related to the effectiveness of these recommendations, how can any teacher possibly achieve this dizzying array of expectations on a daily basis?

2. Differentiation is used as "code" to justify eliminating programs geared toward children with special needs.

Differentiation may have been developed with the best of intentions as a model for meeting each child's individual needs. However, it has now become "code" for the elimination of ability grouping. Frequently touted by school administrators, differentiation is presented to stakeholders as proof that heterogeneous classes work, as the antidote to tracking and as the solution to educating children with diverse educational needs within a single classroom. In a recent commentary, Finn illuminates many of the problems with differentiated instruction and claims that:
"...teachers are tasked with customizing, tailoring, and individualizing the instruction so that administrators and policy types can declare with straight faces that their classrooms are diverse and inclusive and that every child's singular education needs are being satisfactorily met."
How can a teacher differentiate instruction every day for every topic? How is that even possible? This is a recipe for burn-out, hopelessness and resentment. Or a set-up for cutting corners and only occasionally differentiating. Many settle into managing classroom behavioral problems, pulling along struggling students, covering what material they can, and teaching to the middle. Gifted children are typically a low priority in the chaotic demands of the classroom.

Delisle succinctly highlights the dilemma:
"By having dismantled many of the provisions we used to offer to kids on the edges of learning (classes for gifted kids, classes for kids who struggle to learn, and classes for those whose behaviors are disruptive to the learning process of others), we have sacrificed the learning of virtually every student...The verdict is clear: differentiation is a promise unfulfilled, a boondoggle of massive proportions."
3. Differentiation advocates often point to equity as justification for their policy. 

Differentiation advocates claim that ability grouping is unfair because it might penalize children with learning disabilities, slow learners, or even average ability children. They point to the failure of tracking, where many bright and capable students, often students of color, languished in lower tracked classes with no opportunity to advance. They highlight research suggesting that lower or average ability students improve in academic environments where they are challenged.
They correctly note how children of color frequently have been overlooked for gifted identification and are underrepresented in gifted programs. Recent reports document the excellence gap and highlight how gifted minority or low income students are ignored.

While few would ever support resumption of a rigid tracking system where students were barred from advancing, the concept of ability grouping often has been confused with tracking. Many of detracking's staunchest supporters have pointed to the system's rigidity and how lower tracked classes are frequently served by the least skilled teachers. Yet ability grouping can be fluid and does not prevent advancement. And struggling students deserve the most skilled teachers available. There are also conflicting and contradictory findings related to detracking, even for low ability students. See Loveless for an informative article about this issue.

In their groundbreaking paper "Inequity in equity: How 'equity' can lead to inequity for high potential students," Benbow and Stanley highlight the political trends and misconceptions that have derailed efforts to educate gifted and high ability children. According to the authors:
"...equity is the result of an extreme form of egalitarianism in American society and schools, which involves the pitting of equity against excellence rather than promoting both equity and excellence, anti-intellectualism, the 'dumbing-down' of the curriculum, equating aptitude and achievement testing with elitism...and the insistence of schools to teach all students from the same curriculum at the same level."
Benbow also highlights the disservice that occurs when giftedness is falsely associated with higher income levels.
"There are many gifted kids coming from lower socioeconomic-status backgrounds. When you remove programs for the gifted...you are disproportionately hurting those kids the most."
 4. But what about gifted children? 

Differentiation advocates have not supplied data showing educational benefits of heterogeneous classrooms for gifted children. Most studies, along with meta-analytic reviews, typically support the merits of ability grouping for these students. Yet heterogeneous classes persist and are the norm in most school districts for a variety of practical, financial and philosophical reasons. Unable to justify how it serves their academic needs, some school districts claim that mixed ability classes broaden gifted students' lives through interactions with non-gifted students. However, it is hard to imagine a community where this opportunity does not occur every single day. It happens on the playground, at the bus stop, on sports teams, and in most of their academic classes. Gifted children are constantly surrounded by the "real world" of children and adults who think differently than they do and who expect them to "fit in." When gifted students are finally able to participate in ability-grouped classes, it is often quite a relief; finally they can relax and be themselves, engage with like-minded peers, and learn at a challenging pace.

Gifted children learn to "adapt" to heterogeneous classes. They eventually accept that classes will not be challenging. They might respond by entertaining themselves (reading novels, drawing, playing games), causing trouble (talking too much, becoming the class clown), daydreaming and not paying attention, or pestering the teacher with questions beyond the scope of the class.
Regardless of whether their adaptation to boredom and frustration is creative or a nuisance to teachers, gifted children quickly realize that school is not designed for them. They must wait and wait until eventually, when the teacher has the time and opportunity to "differentiate instruction" for them, a more challenging instruction might be available. But even when this occurs, they lack a large group of peers with whom they can share ideas and engage in discussion.

5. How differentiation might work for gifted children

The debate regarding the benefits and drawbacks of differentiated instruction hinges on the complexity of classroom demands, not necessarily on the concept of meeting each child's unique learning needs. It seems clear that differentiation would work best within smaller, homogeneous classes, where the range of students' educational needs is limited. This would minimize the demands placed on teachers, and permit the fine-tuned educational planning and creativity for which differentiated instruction is intended. A recent blog post, for example, described how differentiated instruction worked in the author's relatively small gifted classroom.

Differentiation, as it stands now, has been touted as the solution to detracking, ensuring equity, and managing overwhelming classroom size. If school districts and policy wonks stopped promoting differentiation as the panacea for every educational dilemma, maybe a reasonable dialogue could ensue. Children require targeted instruction all of the time, not just when an especially talented teacher can manage it. Or when resources are plentiful. Or within a small classroom with few "demanding" students. There is a place for differentiated instruction. But relying on it to meet the needs of all children in one setting dilutes its purpose and is a disservice to every child.