In his article he states: 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. In fact, what he argues is that differentiation, while a laudable goal, is too difficult for teachers to implement and it therefore is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students. In other words, according to him, the problem is not the theory, but rather the actual practice. And, rather than improve the skills of our teachers in order to meet the needs of all learners, we should turn back the clock and educate in narrowly defined silos of learner "capability". Hopefully, we have left those days behind us.
Years ago, I taught at the University of Connecticut alongside Jim Delisle and, ironically, Carol Ann Tomlinson who is perhaps the world expert and greatest proponent of differentiation. So I wondered, all of these years later, what would make him think this way?
There is no question that many teachers consider the challenge of meeting the needs of a diverse group of learners an impossible task. You only have to look at the rhetoric surrounding the recent teachers' strike in British Columbia with its rallying cry against the integration of special needs students into classrooms and demands for contract language controlling "class composition" to see this mentality at work. Unfortunately the idea of "streaming" classes is based on the fallacy that students fall into definable categories as learners and that if properly grouped, they can be taught with a "one size fits all" style of instruction. Certainly many post-secondary institutions operate that way but I have never seen a good school, or a master teacher who would ever consider that to be an effective approach to teaching and learning.
Teachers have always struggled with how to differentiate to meet the needs of all learners. Thirty years ago, attention to "learning styles" was all the rage. Teachers were encouraged to vary their methodology in order to give each student some opportunities to learn in their own preferred way. One system in vogue at the time divided students into four learning quadrants and recommended that learning activities and approaches be balanced among them. Although this was superior to a monomodal approach, it still meant - even to its advocates - that the needs of only one quarter of the students in a class were being appropriately addressed at any given time.
What we really needed then, and still need now, is a multimodal approach. In other words, rather than varying our methods from time to time, educators really should offer multiple approaches concurrently. This is the fundamental concept behind Universal Design for Learning (UDL). You start with the concept, or the assessment, or the teaching strategy and offer a variety of approaches or options for students to pursue. UDL starts with the premise that everyone is capable of understanding a concept; or demonstrating mastery; or being engaged in learning; the role of the teacher is to find the pathway that will make it work for each of her or his students. For a class novel study for example, that might mean using a combination of a regular print copy; a digital book with adjustable font; an audio-book; or even speech to text software on a laptop or SmartBoard. Additionally, some creative strategies for challenging learners, inspired by a universal design approach, can often prove to be more effective for all students - even those who would normally succeed in a traditional classroom.
At KGMS and Maplewood Alternative, each of our classes is the most eclectic mix that you can imagine and our school functions quite wonderfully with over 160 different educational plans operating at the same time. Our teachers are masters of the art of running a truly student centred and differentiated classroom, being aware of the range of learning styles and needs that they face and helping children and young adults navigate their way through the curriculum. Do they have supports? Of course they do. We have relatively small core classes (15-18) which are subdivided into working groups of five or six with a dedicated teacher for language arts and mathematics; we have specialist support teachers in Science, Social Studies, Phys-ed and the Arts; we have a strong counseling department which delivers our Social-Emotional Learning programme; we have psychologists, an SLP and an OT at our disposal; and a legion of expert tutors that provide close to an hour of one on one tutoring for each elementary student, every day and individualized academic support for all of our high school students.
You see, the real issue is not about who is in your classroom, but rather it is about how you are organized to effectively serve them. In our school, students with complex learning needs are not a challenge to be faced, they are a puzzle to be solved. We work as a team to unlock the barriers to their learning and open up new pathways to success. It is often a difficult task, but it is always rewarding.
Every teacher, every classroom, and every school has to provide a learning environment that recognizes that every student learns differently. You can call it differentiation, or you can just call it effective teaching. Either way, it is the only way to meet the needs of the learners in our care. Anything less, to put it in Jim Delisle's terms, would be a "farce"!