David Griffith: What is Differentiation; Who Dreamed This Up and Where do you get training to do it?

Feb 8, 2015 by

An Interview with David Griffith: What is Differentiation; Who Dreamed This Up and Where do you get training to do it?

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) David, first of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself, your education and experience?

I’m a native of Portland, Oregon, and the son of two teachers, so education runs in my veins. Six years ago, in the wake of the 2008 election, I moved to D.C. to work on Capitol Hill and attend the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown, where I acquired a renewed interest in education. When I graduated from Georgetown, I felt compelled to teach, so I did. I’ve always been interested in systemic change, however, so I decided to return to the policy world to try to get a handle on some of the problems I’d witnessed as a teacher.

2) What first got you involved in (gasp!) differentiation?

I think every teacher experiments with differentiation because kids aren’t widgets, and you want to know what works. As a teacher, I found most forms of differentiation frustrating. The more things you try to do at once, the less successful you are as a teacher. My best lessons were the ones where I found one and only one interesting and fun way to explore a concept. So, for example, if you are doing John Locke, you have the kids pretend they are on a desert island, so they understand what is meant by a state of nature. Despite the fact that I didn’t differentiate, each of my kids took something slightly different from that lesson. Just because kids are different doesn’t mean your lesson should be.

3) It seems that “differentiation“ is this word that seems to have many, many ( Yikes! ) different definitions. Do you have one?

I can’t improve on Carol Tomlinson’s definition of differentiation as “an approach to teaching that advocates active planning for student differences in classrooms.” I know some people have drawn a distinction between “differentiating” based on learning style, and “individualizing” based on level of proficiency, and I think the two are separate at the conceptual level. However, in practice, the distinction often gets blurred because many kids who are perceived as learning differently are also behind academically. Regardless, the essence of differentiation/individualization is doing more than one thing at the same time, or doing the same thing in many ways at the same time. Either way, the burden on the teacher both before and during class is increased.

4) Is there a difference between making accommodations and modifications and differentiation?

Some people might see a difference based on their definition of differentiation, but I don’t. Differentiation is just modification and accommodation taken to its logical extreme.

5) It seems every few years some new term comes along- accountability, for example, and people jump on the bandwagon. Your thoughts?

That certainly seems to be the case. In the case of differentiation, we are doomed to a certain cycle, where we oscillate between more or less aggressive tracking, based on the shortcomings of whatever approach we tried last. Obviously, there will always be a need to differentiate between students, but how much of that burden is placed on the teacher (as opposed to the system as a whole) is something that we’re going to be talking about for a long time to come.

7) In your mind is “differentiation“ simply a “dumbing down“ and lowering academic standards and integrity ?

Differentiation isn’t a dumbing down, but there’s definitely a risk. Whenever you have students who are behind, there is a risk that in seeking to meet their needs, you will lower expectations. I think this risk exists regardless of the classroom context. But differentiation may exacerbate it.

8) Differentiation, like “Response to Intervention “ seems to put a lot of responsibility on teachers who have no training in these realms. Am I off on this?

Like most teaching strategies, ultimately differentiation is something that teachers have to work out for themselves once they are in the classroom. But the issue is more about trade-offs than training. I worry that many teachers are differentiating because they feel they have to, rather than seeking an appropriate balance between the needs of individuals and those of the class as a whole.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

You might have asked me if I believe teachers should never differentiate, or if I believe differentiation is entirely useless. The answer is “no.” As with most things, there is a time and place for differentiated instruction. But there are limits to what is advisable or practical, and we ought to do more to acknowledge these limits, because in the real world, doing too much to differentiate is probably just as dangerous as doing too little.

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