Why I Don’t Like Differentiated Instruction

10/04/2011
A class in a newly rebuilt secondary school in...

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I have read countless books, articles and blogs on the importance of differentiating instruction. I disagree with almost all of them because of the teacher-centered approach they take. Learning isn’t instruction; learning is acquisition.

Instruction focuses on what the teacher provides or what the teacher tells the student and differentiation merely postulates that teachers need to provide a variety of materials and tell in a variety of ways.

That is teaching.

Learning is something else.

Learning is inquisition, investigation and association.

Inquiry Cycle

Learning starts with questions. Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? What happened? What will happen if…?

Investigation is not the teacher providing the answers before the question is asked. It is the process of the student seeking potential answers and testing them.

Learning emerges as the result of information gleaned in the investigation phase associating with prior knowledge leading to the synthesis of new knowledge and, when it works best, new and better questions.

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Finding the Time, Using the Tools

11/11/2010
An analogue clock face without hands.
Image via Wikipedia

I haven’t written in a month. Sorry.

I’ve been kind of busy trying to become the teacher I want to be in a situation I should love but am struggling with. More on that in a later post.

This post is a comment I made in response to this.

Thanks for the kind words about my statement. Not only do students and teachers need a safe space to fail, we need the time to fail and learn from that failure. More and more I see time, particularly the lack of it, the biggest impediment to learning. The answer is not extended days or shorter summer breaks. Instead, we should severely trim the curriculum and revolutionize our notions of subjects and related content.

Old tools and spanners

Image by freefotouk via Flickr

We are increasingly in possession of a collection of technologic tools that more easily allow for individualization of learning opportunities, methods and objectives, yet we retain 19th Century notions of discrete subject areas and common learning.

As we switch from individual to collaborative models of thought, learning and creation, it is less important that any one person have a great stash of learning as long as the collaborative team does. Additionally, the collaborative team need not be in a common classroom, school or continent.

We need to help students (as opposed to teach them) to learn how to collaborate, how to find collaborators and how to use technology to do all that and also present the results of the collaboration.

For these reasons and more, teaching the use of the tools is at least as important as anything else we do in school. When I was in middle school we had typing lessons and in high school we were taught mechanical drawing, both examples of teaching the technology and not the content. Doing so was important then and it is important now, perhaps even more so as there are so many more tools and so many more ways to use them.

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Public Education: Start Again?

05/04/2010

My Twitter friend Stephen Diil in his blog Public Education: Start Again wrote:

I pose that question again to you. Everyone is either  an investor, client or an employee of one or more public education systems. If you could start from scratch, with no idea how it should look, who would it serve? How would it serve that audience? When and where would it serve it?What a lovely notion, the idea of starting all over.

Stephen challenged me to respond. I did. Here’s what I said:

It is a stimulating intellectual exercise that, I’m deeply afraid, has little or no relationship to reality.

Oh, some district somewhere will take the plunge and try to start fresh without any of the old assumptions. Let’s even assume that they can convince the teachers to go along with, better yet, be part of planning the renaissance. Imagine that, administrators, teachers, and maybe even some entrepreneurs working together and moving in a common direction; I can almost see the sun shining through brilliant rainbows and bluebirds chirping the good news.

Double Supernumerary Rainbow

Image by Proggie via Flickr

But wait! We still have to convince the parents.

Parents, it turns out, are deeply suspicious of any major fundamental re-imagining of school. This is the main reason that charter schools, for the most part, are just more intense, sometimes more focused versions of your everyday public school.

It seems parents like the 10-hour schooldays because it provides that much more free childcare coverage for working moms and dads, but as soon as ideas like student choice and child-directed education start flying about the parents fly off the handle and out the door.

Okay, but this is an intellectual exercise, not a pragmatic one, right.

I repeat that because if it were a discussion of pragmatic reformations of education we’d have to account for all those pesky poverty-stricken inner-city kids who, while desperately in need of open space and access to nature, have little safe access to it.

It is, in fact, in the inner cities and, paradoxically perhaps, the rural areas where all discussions of education reform trip over themselves and fall.

In inner cities there are just too many kids to scrap the current system and start over. No one in their right mind is going to put the million or so school children in NYC out onto the streets whilst the school buildings are torn down to create new educational open spaces.

Farmland in the Catskill country, in New York ...
Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

The rural areas have lots of space but not the concentration of students to make use of it the way it might be used elsewhere. That students who live in open space will need to be bussed to other open spaces for educational purposes is mind-boggling.

So, if it won’t work in inner cities and won’t work in rural areas, who will benefit from this re-imagination of education? Why, it’s the wealthier suburban kids whose schools, for the most part, are not the real problems we think about when we think about the problems of or caused by public education.

One can no more restart the education system than one could restart fire service, policing, sanitation services, the military or any of the other similar major social-service agencies.

Change in education, like in most aspects of life and public policy, is and will remain far more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Tis a pity, for sure.

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