Monday, October 04, 2010

Focus on the Hard Problems

Having followed a link from Michael Goldstein and read this EdWeek piece by Mike Schmoker on differentiated instruction, I might as well jot down my response.

  • Schmoker elides several issues here:

    The innovation-Differentiated Instruction-went on to become one of the most widely adopted instructional orthodoxies of our time. It claims that students learn best when (despite some semantically creative denial) grouped by ability, as well as by their personal interests and "learning styles."

    This obscures what is to me the key feature in contemporary "differentiated instruction." It isn't that you have students grouped by ability in general, but that you have them grouped within the same classroom. I attended a fairly progressive rural middle school that in the early eighties had all students grouped by ability into five tiers. Teachers know and have always know how to handle that kind of differentiation. Once we decided that differentiation between classes was an equity problem, then differentiation within the classroom became a hot topic, because this type of differentiation is undeniably technically difficult.

    But nobody really denies that a wide range of abilities exists within each age-graded level in a school, and this must be handled one way or another. Differentiation by learning style is more complicated and convoluted, and while science can show that narrow, scientific definitions of learning styles don't stand up to experiment, I would simply say this is an area where teaching is more art than science. If you try to overdo learning styles or take them too literally, you've lost the plot.

  • As Schmoker is a former administrator and current consultant, it might be too much to ask for him to note that this is a case where teachers aren't the problem. These fads are driven by administrators and consultants.
  • His "three simple things" aren't that simple:

    Second-and just as important-we need to ensure that students read, write, and discuss, in the analytic and argumentative modes, for hundreds of hours per school year, across the curriculum. We aren't even close to that now. All students should be reading deeply, discussing, arguing, and writing about what they read every day in multiple courses. We can do this: Consider that students spend about 1,000 hours per year in school.

    Third, we need to honor, beyond lip service, the nearly half-century-old model for good lessons that all of us know, but so few consistently implement (except, notably, when being formally evaluated).

    The consistent delivery of lessons that include multiple checks for understanding may be the most powerful, cost-effective action we can take to ensure learning.

    Good lessons start with a clear, curriculum-based objective and assessment, followed by multiple cycles of instruction, guided practice, checks for understanding (the soul of a good lesson), and ongoing adjustments to instruction. Thanks to the British educator Dylan Wiliam and others, we now know that the consistent delivery of lessons that include multiple checks for understanding may be the most powerful, cost-effective action we can take to ensure learning. Solid research demonstrates that students learn as much as four times as quickly from such lessons.

    It is difficult to do those two things at the same time. Maybe as difficult as differentiating instruction! We're not so much circling around to the clear solution as back to the fundamental difficulty of educating students. Sure you want to balance those two things, but how?.

The reason you should not follow fads is not because they distract you from the correct easy solution; it is because they distract you from the eternal, irreducibly hard problems.

No comments: