Counter-Trends: James Delisle

This post is in response to: Differentiation Doesn’t Work by James Delisle

One thing is for sure in education: trends. There are actually books written on it. From disciplinary styles to the way we teach reading, we educators love a good one-size-fits-all magic bullet that may fix all of our problems. The unfortunate reality, though, is that education is just darn complicated. If there were one solution that fixed everything, chances are we’d have found it.

What we often don’t think about as much, though, is that just as popular as trends are counter-trends: haters (for lack of a better word) who hate (sometimes very justifiably) on a particular trend, but do so in a way that oversimplifies the issue and dismisses it wholeheartedly. The reasons for this are vast. Most “haters” are actually “lovers” of education, and don’t like how outside influences, especially ones with no soul (e.g., corporate interests poised to make a lot of money), come in with nicely packaged (and profitable) solutions at the expensive of “real” education. However, in the process of (again, sometimes justifiably) hating, these haters sometimes overdo it.

Case in point: James Delisle in his recent post with Education Week entitled “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.” To simplify, in his article he points to several ways in which differentiation is either limited or poorly implemented. He’s right in most of these cases. Where he’s wrong is his conclusion that differentiation can’t ever work. This is a classic case of throwing the baby out. Somehow, if a concept is limited and doesn’t provide the entire solution to education, it must offer nothing.

The immensely ironic aspect of his article is that he’s actually making the same broad point that I am in disagreeing with him – that educational fads hurt. The point of this article isn’t to debate differentiation, but for sake of at least providing some backup to my comments, here’s the gist of what I’m saying with differentiation: Yes, differentiation can be tough to implement, and not all lessons can be differentiated, but differentiation happens successfully and routinely in all classrooms everyday. Case in point: Reading groups. Every time a teacher pulls a subset of students to focus on a lesson that is matched to that group’s skill level, differentiation is happening. Furthermore, differentiation isn’t just routine & successful, it’s critical: differentiation, by definition, means matching instruction to student need, and doing so by providing different instruction to different children in a classroom.

Some teachers are fortunate enough to have classrooms in which all students needs are similar enough that they can always do whole group lessons. However, many teachers have students with very diverse needs. If this is the case, differentiation isn’t just a possibility, but a crucial element of learning. By definition, non-differentiated instruction in these environments isn’t really instruction, or at least good instruction.

The bottom line? Be a critical consumer not only of research and trends, but counter trends. Don’t jump on bandwagons to do things, or to not do things. Think things through. If we (educators) want to be treated professionally, we need to act professionally.

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Bobby Caples graduated from USF, and eventually went on to expand the concept of community-based behavior support in other settings, include the organization he founded called YouthBASE (Greenville, SC). The concept of YouthBASE was much like the concept of his thesis, only on a larger scale: Take ideas and strategies that had found success in other fields beyond after-school programs, and import them.