Finding Lost Children Through Differentiated Instruction - ASCD
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January 1, 2003

Finding Lost Children Through Differentiated Instruction

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What makes children feel lost in school? The reasons are so varied, answered Carol Ann Tomlinson. Culture, economic status, the language spoken, aptitude—if a child feels different because of any of these factors, that child often feels alienated from others in the classroom. "It's so hard to make connections with kids who have fallen through the cracks," Tomlinson warned, so it's important not to let them do so.

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What teachers need to do, she stated, is "make more room for human contact and human possibility in the classroom." Teachers also need to make sure that instruction corresponds to students' achievement levels and needs. "It's not too much more than common sense in a classroom," Tomlinson pointed out. "If the work matches my needs, I do better."

Brain research supports the need to differentiate instruction and keep students from falling through the cracks, Tomlinson suggested. If a student decides, based upon her experiences in the classroom, that the work "is beyond my control and I can't do it," her brain "downshifts" into the limbic state "and all the electrical activity, all that thinking stuff," stops happening. One of two things will probably happen as a result, she said: that child will engage in activities that ultimately keep her from doing the work, or she will try to disappear, try to hide, in the classroom. "When a child perennially works in this condition, she will burn out."

Likewise, if a child comes into school and the work is always too easy, and he thinks, "I knew what she was saying last week," his brain "does an interesting thing." The thinking activity again disappears as the child's brain goes into the "sleep" mode. This child, said Tomlinson, will go through school "with a sense of depression" about the years of unchallenging classwork that lie ahead.

What the research shows, she maintained, is that, if the brain is to work at its optimum level and if children are to achieve, they must have moderately challenging work—"relative to the learner"—available to them. Work in the classroom must provide an appropriate challenge for each student. "When challenges and skills are in balance," Tomlinson concluded, all students can participate in learning and find that they belong in the classroom.

What two motivational conditions are detrimental to learning? Follow this link [audio clip] to find out.

[Transcript of audio clip featuring Carol Ann Tomlinson.]

[Transcript of audio clip featuring Carol Ann Tomlinson.]

Two motivational conditions are especially dangerous. In other words, when kids find themselves in these positions, they start falling through cracks. Those two conditions of motivation are anxiety and boredom.

When a child feels anxious, they don’t learn so well, the psychologist says. When a child feels bored, they don’t learn so well. That doesn’t mean that if we feel anxious for five minutes we’re in deep trouble, or that if we are bored occasionally, life ends. What it means is that when school is a continual blur of anxiety, when boredom repeats itself day after day and hour after hour, it really becomes a deterrent to learning.

Anxiety happens, they tell us, when we expect too much from students. That’s a difficult line for me in the sense that I believe that one of our problems in school is that we expect too little of most of our kids. So, I’m very large on trying to figure out how to raise ceilings for kids. But the piece that is missing with that is as we raise the ceiling for a child, we have to raise the support system. And if we don’t build ladders to those increased ceilings, then they are out of reach. The truth is, too, that there are many children in our classrooms for whom our grade-level expectations today are too high. In other words, to build the scaffolding means to go backwards and help the children get to where we meant for them to be rather than just sort of assuming that as long as we cheerlead, they will get there.

Boredom, the psychologists tell us, happens when teachers expect too little from kids. Our very brightest kids are in sort of an interesting bind these days, and it’s not a very positive one. It reemphasizes a problem that we’ve always had in school with them; as long as a child can do the class work, they’re successful. And so a bright kid comes in and can already achieve very well with minimal effort on what we are teaching, and for us that means success. For that child it doesn’t, however, because no growth is occurring and that probably is intensified now because of the standards-based notion. Standards cannot be set for your brightest children. If they were, almost nobody could pass the test. And so our brightest kids come in to us able to achieve that which we aspire to for other kids by the end of the year. And we look at that as success often without understanding that they, too, need to be on escalators of growth. And they sit and wait more than they should have to.

So, what psychologists have told us is that when our curricular expectations are out of sync with where students are in their readiness levels, not only does motivation decrease, but achievement will go with it.

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