The Most Common Misconception about Differentiation of Instruction


Robert (teacher) asks:

What is the most common misconception about differentiation of instruction?

Dr. Marion Blank answers:

Differentiation of instruction has an admirable goal. The aim is to provide different students with different paths to learning—so each child has what (s)he can benefit from the most. Unfortunately, except in rare instances, the range of what is available is far narrower than the concept would suggest. For example, it’s long been known that traditional spelling assignments are ineffective at achieving better spelling (e.g., given a list of words, on one day the child has to copy each word three times, on another day, (s)he has to write a sentence for each word on the list, etc.). Further, the spelling lists are particularly painful and frustrating for children with reading problems—so that they serve to make a bad problem worse. Yet, these assignments are still used on a daily basis throughout the nation.

Often, when I am consulting with a school district about a child with reading difficulties, I ask if the spelling assignments can be eliminated, or at least, significantly reduced –so that time and motivation are available for more productive activities. It would seem to be a win-win situation in that the school faces no new demands on its already crowded agenda and the child would have free space for better learning. Nevertheless, almost always, the answer is “But if we do that for Joe, we have to do it for all the children.” There are lots of lessons in that response with a chief one being that most children detest the typical spelling work and would like to be rid of it. The obvious answer is to eliminate the activity for all –given its history of ineffectiveness. But for the purposes here what is relevant is the total disregard for the promised differentiation of instruction—even though this is a situation where it would be so easy to implement.

So, in answering this question, I believe that the most common misconception about differentiation of instruction is that it really exists in a meaningful form. In my experience, it does not. However, the future could be dramatically different if we were to implement this potentially rewarding concept in a more effective way.

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