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September 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 1

Perspectives / Standardized Instruction—Effects May Vary

Seeking relief for my allergies, I squint to read the fine print on those ads for miracle drugs. Do I really want to exchange my watering eyes for sleepiness, headaches, possible gastrointestinal upset, and, in extremely rare cases, harm to internal organs? Yet the fact that there are so many beneficial treatments out there piques my interest in alleviating my breathing difficulties. Not exploring the possibilities seems unwise.
Statistical consensus in medicine is wonderful, having eradicated many diseases that our ancestors died from. The Human Genome Project promises to decipher our genetic blueprint, telling us more about how we are all alike. Scientific studies may someday define the subtle differences in the genetic code from group to group, even person to person. Differentiated, possibly personalized, gene medicine may be in our future. The benefits and problems loom before us—among the latter, concerns about access, equity, risk, effectiveness, and cost.
There are some parallels in the current challenges facing education. The high standards movement holds the promise of giving all students opportunities to attain the knowledge, skills, and concepts that they need to survive as lifelong learners. At the same time, the kids in our classrooms remind us that when it comes to instruction, students differ. Their past educational experiences, abilities and disabilities, readiness levels, learning styles, and interests all play a role in what they learn every day.
Schools are responding to the struggle between standardization versus diversity in many ways. Some are resorting to tracking, returning to self-contained classes for the highest and lowest achievers. In the quest to boost test scores, a few pay attention to those learners on the cusp of passing tests, neglecting both the average students and those on the outliers. Other schools are becoming more inclusive in grouping students while employing co-teachers, adaptive materials, and smaller classes to address differences.
Along comes a new (but at least as old as the one-room school) strategy called differentiated instruction. Based on research describing how students learn, DI focuses on how students are both alike and different. Differentiated instruction requires that teachers study student differences in understanding, learning modalities, and interests and plan accordingly to allow for different learning rates and to structure tasks of varying complexity. It also requires that teachers are clear about the essential skills, key concepts, and principles that all students must master.
Misunderstandings about the practice are commonplace, as in the example of a teacher who proposed five different tasks her students might do after reading a novel—from rewriting the ending to drawing the characters. She had not asked the all-important question: What do I want my students to learn from these tasks? Her fuzzy sense of the essentials resulted in fuzzy activities and fuzzy student understanding—barriers to high-quality teaching and learning.
At a recent meeting of a differentiated teaching cadre here at ASCD, the participants discussed other barriers to implementing differentiation. First among them is the difficulty of understanding how to do it, they said. It's not a cookbook approach; keeping track of its complexities is not always easy. Teachers and administrators have only rarely experienced the practice in their own education and staff development. Differentiated instruction also requires time to collaborate and work together—time in the summer to create lessons and time during the semester to plan and ask specific questions of experienced coaches. Teachers also need support from principals and leaders.
Those teachers who lack support and resources may still be successful, Carol Ann Tomlinson says. She makes the following suggestions for how to start:Take notes on your students each day. Be conscious of what works and what does not. Assess students before you begin to teach a skill or topic. Look at the work your students do as indicators of student need. At first, try creating one differentiated lesson per unit. Find multiple resources for key parts of your curriculum. Give students structured choices about how to work or which homework assignment to do.
What makes differentiated instruction worth the effort? Kids love it, the teachers testify. Students in these classes are engaged in learning. The teacher's frustration about not reaching all students lessens. And differentiated instruction also pays off in deeper understanding and achievement. One teacher said, "After our test scores came out, our superintendent wrote a memo saying that differentiation is a key way to teach the standards . . . . Establishing standards has opened the window for differentiation. Standards help to establish that differentiation works."

Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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