#Differentiation, “Dumbing Down”, and #Education Discourse

“You’re a principal, aren’t you?”

What followed that question from a mother who recognized me as a school leader, in a public space where I wasn’t expecting an educational conversation, was an exploration of her daughter’s struggles in school.

This deeply concerned mother shared how her daughter has been diagnosed with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and how she has self esteem issues. How her daughter attended a school for a few years where many supports were provided to her to build up her self esteem, to accommodate her learning needs with dyslexia and attention needs, to give her *true* success as a learner through differentiation in teaching and assessing…not through “dumbing down” or reducing content to something trivial and embarassing for both the teacher and the learner.

The mother shared how her daughter’s self esteem grew through those years to the point where her confidence in herself helped increase her reading, writing, and mathematical abilities dramatically. How with those improvements and supports, her daughter initiated conversations with other students about reading and math that she would not have done in the past, all because the teachers truly understood her needs as a learner and supported them through tiny changes in how concepts were taught, presented, and assessed.

But all that has now changed, this mother said, and within a span of a few weeks. All because her daughter is attending a new school. The mother shared how she has seen her daughter shrinking back inwards, having negative self-talk (“I’m not good at math”, “I’m stupid”, “I’m different”), and how she now has regressed in her reading abilities to the point of stuttering. The mother shared how she has had many conversations with her daughter’s teacher, finding out that her daughter is polite and respectful in class. How her daughter works hard in class…always…and has not been a problem socially at all. How her daughter, according to the teacher, definitely does understand the concepts in all her junior high subjects.

But there’s a problem, according to the teacher. The mother continued to share with me that despite being cooperative and using time in class and being socially appropriate and understanding all the concepts (no matter what the subject area), unfortunately her daughter has not been handing in assignments. In fact, her daughter has not been handing in over half of the assigned items–be they worksheets, maps, experiment writeups, whatever. Simply because she didn’t have enough time, and even after spending hours each night doing homework. Yet, according to the teacher, concepts are understood “but unfortunately her report card will reflect a failing grade because less than half the work is complete”.

The mother was looking to me to share my thoughts on the situation. So I did, as candidly and respectfully as I could, ever mindful that I was really being asked to make a judgement call on a professional colleague.

Assuming the picture this mother painted was an accurate one of what was going on in her daughter’s academic life through interactions with her classroom teacher, there is a fundamental disconnect here. If the student does in fact meet all the outcomes and understand all the concepts, it should not be necessary for the student to complete assignments and projects that are merely re-confirming what the teacher already knows. “Ah, but all the other students had to complete those assignments, so it would be unfair for one student to get away with doing less.”  Where’s the focus here – about doing work, or about understanding?

Unfortunately, some educators still have the misguided notion that “differentiation” means “dumbing down” the content, having students do less, having teachers teach less content, making the workload less and the content “easier”. That is *not* differentiation.

Education in Manitoba has shifted to a model of outcome-based learning. Back in the 1990s, curricula published by the Department of Education focused very much on time frames for topics and ensuring that all topics were covered within the specified time frames. Teachers became frustrated, realizing that the topics would never fit the allocated theoretical time frames given within these documents. What we eventually morphed into is a model of outcome-based learning, where the focus is on whether individual students “meet the outcomes” (or goals) for their subject areas. The shift to outcome-focused education allows educators to better incorporate different ways of teaching and learning, as well as different ways of assessing – true differentiation.

With differentiation working at its best, each student is given the opportunity to learn content in different ways, and to display their understanding of the content (that they have “met the outcomes”). If a student is better able to “meet the outcome” or display their knowledge verbally, teachers are able to provide supports such as having students perform a presentation or project, or answer test questions verbally while a scribe writes their answer (and teachers would ensure that auditory learning supports are provided in class…whether through verbal repetitions of material or ability of a student to video/record the teacher teaching). If a student is better able to display their knowledge without a time constraint, extra time is given to complete tasks or tests (and teachers would ensure that returning to topics not yet learned would occur throughout the year, and future years if more time is needed).  If a student needs a separate space without the distraction of other students, or flickering fluorescent lights, or the sound of other pencils scratching away, students are able to display their knowledge in a different venue (and teachers would ensure that small group learning opportunities and individual learning opportunities for new content are provided within daily class work).

As educators, we need to be conscientious about how we teach and how we assess. I am excited that institutions of higher education (colleges and universities) are starting to incorporate more concepts of differentiation in teaching and assessing, allowing students the opportunity as adult learners to obtain supports similar to what they have received in their formative school years.

Ultimately, in an educational system that is still connected to the industrial era factory-based model, it is still going to be a struggle to truly incorporate differentiation in teaching and assessing. The focus of education – in high school and adult years – is definitely still more focused on ranking students rather than individual learning. Marks are tied to awards, which are tied to scholarships, which are tied to better job opportunities. The ongoing challenge for educators and for society is to determine how to balance ranking of students (which is still necessary if as a society we are going to remain within a growth-based capitalistic model) with individual understanding (which is crucial if we are wanting society to truly become sustainable, justice-oriented, and providing equal opportunity for all).


About tjthiessen

explorer, administrator, consultant, student, leader
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