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10 Reasons Differentiated Instruction Died

At the height of the free-wheeling differentiated instruction movement, I and a number of educators interested in teaching to individual student needs tried with only minimal success to co-opt the movement into something that teachers would actually implement in their classrooms. Teachers heard a lot of idealistic approaches at conferences and in university classrooms, and some testimonials from superstar teachers, but differentiated instruction never gained traction in the typical teacher’s classroom. The same has turned out to be the case with both individualized instruction, and personalized instruction. Brothers of another mother (no matter what the few remaining practitioners claim).

Now the only time I hear differentiated instruction, it seems to be in the context of some snide teacher remark about false expectations or administrative cop-out remarks on teacher evaluations. Sad, but true. Additionally, some elements of some differentiated instruction have fallen into disfavor, such as learning styles and free choice learning.

But back in the day… As a district reading specialist, I learned plenty of practical ideas about differentiating, individualizing, and personalizing instruction−some well worth trying. I would demonstrate an instructional technique or approach with some degree of success in a teachers’ classroom to a rapt audience of 30 fifth-graders or 38 seventh-graders. Of course, the teachers had bribed her class with extra recess time or no homework passes if they behaved perfectly and threatened death and dismemberment if they did not.

I got plenty of compliments about my lessons and consensus that we all have to teach to individual needs, but the teachers never adopted differentiated instruction, individualized instruction, nor personalized instruction in their classrooms.

Why Not?

  1. Behavior Management−Teachers frequently hear conference speakers or university professors trivialize the challenge of any teaching approach other than whole-class direct instruction. I know what teachers think: “He or she does not know my classroom. That might work in an ideal situation, but not where I teach with the constraints that I have.” Behavior management was the first nail in the coffin of differentiated instruction. Simply put, whole-class direct instruction provides teachers with the most control to maintain discipline and structure.
  1. Administrative Gate-Keeping−Administrators like to see students in their seats, quiet, attentive, and on-task. No matter what they say in faculty meetings. To quote from 12 Reasons Why Teachers Resist Differentiated Instruction, “Administrator-teacher relationships are optimally viewed as professional and collegial with differences simply being ones of roles and tasks. Practically, administrator-teacher are management and worker relationships. The fact that administrators wield the one-sided powers of evaluation and teacher grade-subject-or schedule assignment make teachers conform to some degree to the wishes and tone of the administration in any school. Teachers who don’t play the game to a certain degree may find their input marginalized or their services outsourced to another site.” The safe choice for any teacher is whole-class direct instruction, not the freedom of choice learning centers, rotating cooperative groups, reading and writing workshops, etc.
  1. Not Enough Prep Time−Any form of individualized instruction requires considerable amounts of lesson preparation, assessment, visits to the copier, and more paper correction. Differentiated instruction meant more work for teachers at home, on weekends, during summer.
  1. Not Enough Class Time−More and more class time is being eaten up by broadening the scope of teaching and adding on subject requirements. With the new PAARC and SBAT assessments in most states, more class time is allocated to test prep and the tests themselves. More state and district mandates steal more class time. Extending the number of instructional days is simply cost-prohibitive. Something’s got to give. Time is reductive. If time were allocated to teaching to the needs of individual students, instructional time would be reduced in other academic areas. A typical teacher legitimate excuse: “I would like to differentiate, but who has the time? There are so many Standards to get to and testing takes up so much time, as well.”
  1. Standards-based instruction−Common Core and the standards movement has made many teachers abandon differentiated instruction. Comprehensive standards and emphasis on teaching to standards-based tests have re-focused many teachers on the what of teaching at the expense of the how and why of teaching. For many teachers, teaching the “power standards,” that is the standards most often tested on the yearly test, are more important than teaching to the needs of individual students. As one colleague once told me, “My job is to teach the grade-level standards, if students have not yet mastered the previous years’ standards, that is the fault of their teachers. I have to do my job, not theirs.”
  1. A Teacher Is Not Omnipresent−Key to individualized instruction is the focus on the individual. Duh! A middle school teacher may have 38 individuals. A teacher can’t be everywhere at once.
  1. Academic Rigor−The emphasis on rigor with high standards has led many teachers to abandon instructed catered to the needs of individual students. The thought is that students need to rise to the level of expectations (without any scaffolded means to do so). Also, the Depth of Knowledge (D.O.K.) Levels movement has made many teachers I know feel that unless their students are involved in instruction at Level 3, they’re not really teaching. Most teachers I know would like to help students “catch up” through scaffolded instruction, while the students concurrently “keep up” with rigorous grade-level instruction. However, teachers often feel the pressure to do the latter at the expense of the former.
  1. Curricular Materials−We tend to use only district adopted instructional materials or the curriculum and class novels that our colleagues use. We may “cut and paste” with a few purchases from Teachers Pay Teachers, but most materials focus on whole-class direct instruction. Districts are always financially strapped. When new English-language arts and reading program adoptions are finally purchased, the ancillary materials e.g. ELD, lower reading level, additional practice, differentiated instruction workbooks, and software are often jettisoned. Teachers are left to create on their own, and they frequently don’t.
  1. Tradition−We tend to teach the way that we learned. “If it was good enough for me, it should be good enough for my students.” Most of us learned through whole-class, non-differentiated instruction.

So the 10 Reasons Differentiated Instruction Died got me wondering… What would teachers not only agree to, but also actually implement in their classrooms to attend to the individual needs of their students? Check out my article on Assessment-Based Instruction for some answers.

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