The Dangerous Temptation of Differentiated Instruction

Greek mythology speaks of the sirens who “were dangerous and beautiful creatures, portrayed as femmes fatales who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island.” The myth is centred around the wisdom of being leery of things that sound enchanting and fascinating and to approach with caution.

I see the same dangerous temptation being applied to the current pedogogical fascination with Differentiated Instruction. Don’t get me wrong, I think the spirit behind the idea of differentiated instruction is a good one and the idea that teachers should look to mix up their game a bit is sound. To avoid simple professional boredom, every teacher should look for new ways to deliver their part of the learning experience but the key is to look at what part of the learning experience IS theirs. The problem with the concept of differentiated instruction is that it infers that the most important thing that happens in a classroom is instruction. This is a trap that many educational theorists fall into because simply put, instruction is not the most important thing happening in the classroom: LEARNING is!!!

The dangerous part about the theory of Differentiated Instruction and the full court press that people are putting on teachers when it comes to the implementation of this theory is that it is impossible and leads to severe teacher frustration.

If we were to be honest with ourselves, no one can expect any teacher to be able to craft different instructions for every different personality that they find in their class. This is made all the more complicated when you consider how much young people are changing and so you may have 30 different personalities sitting in front of you than you had the day before, even if the faces are all the same. Add to that again, a student’s needs are comprised of the environment that they find themselves outside of the class. To illustrate this I offer an example from personal experience.

While serving as an administrator in a Toronto area high school, I was informed that the school motion detector alarm was tripped in the middle of the night and when the police were dispatched found a young woman trying to exit the school. Looking at the video tapes and talking to her we found out that this young lady was in real crisis as it was Valentine’s Day, she had just broken up with her boyfriend and she feared that she may be pregnant. She was an honour roll student with a very strict and traditional family and she literally did not know what to do, so she went into the girls bathroom and sat in a stall hiding for 6 hours!! She was lost!!

I bring up this story to show the problem with Differentiated Instruction. How could any of her teachers have know this and thus properly differentiated their instruction to meet her needs? Yet this is exactly what the theory of DI insists teachers do. It is a losing battle and teachers are doomed to crash on the rocks from listening and following the siren of DI.

So should we just go back to totally teacher directed, one-size fits all education? If you have read any of my previous posts, I think you know that this is not an option, but the prospects are not really all that gloomy. Truly to capture the spirit of Differentiated Instruction in a model that teachers can work towards there need only be a slight change in wording but a huge change in perspective. I propose a change to:


The spirit of differentiated instruction is for a teacher to take into consideration the different needs and learning styles of their students, so teachers need to spend their energy on creating an environment and tasks that allows students to approach and LEARN in many DIFFERENTIATED ways. If teachers can make the fundamental shift away from Instruction being the key element of the classroom then things can happen.

I offer the simple example of the flipped classroom. This is by no means the pinnacle of DIFFERENTIATED LEARNING but it does speak to the spirit of it. By simply taking their lesson and recording it and offering the video in a central, online repository that students can access at their own time, then you have DIFFERENTIATED LEARNING. If a student struggles with the concept then they can view it as often as they need or pause along the way so pace is not an issue. If the students understand most of the concept then they can only view what they need and not feel bored. If the social pressure cooker that is a classroom environment is too much for a student then they can choose to learn in the comfort and security of their own home. With this small example, a teacher is creating one lesson and then allowing students to tailor it to their own needs. You have DIFFERENTIATED LEARNING with one lesson!

Now simply recording and posting a Powerpoint is not enough for DL to live and breathe. There has to be a fundamental shift in the spirit of the class and all assignments. This is where Inquiry Based, Self-Directed learning comes in as they allow for students to approach their learning in ways that they need and explore that passions that are singular to them.

I will have future posts that go into more detail about Inquiry Based and Self-Directed Learning but I want to establish the need for a change in language and focus so that LEARNING becomes the focus of teacher work and not INSTRUCTION. Seems like a simple concept but one that seems destined for the rocks if we listen too much to the Educational Sirens.

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