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For Teachers

When is Differentiation Detrimental?

By Jennifer Gunn December 13, 2018

Educators have gotten very good at building scaffolds for student learning, but are we going too far? Are we underestimating our students’ ability to struggle and then succeed? When is it time to step back? Should every assignment have scaffolds? Let’s explore if and when differentiation and scaffolding should take a backseat to healthy learning struggles.  

Differentiated instruction is a teacher “reacting responsively to a learner’s needs. A teacher who is differentiating understands a student’s need to express humor, or work with a group, or have additional teaching on a particular skill, or delve more deeply into a particular topic, or have guided help with a reading passage — and the teacher responds actively and positively to that need,” says Carol Ann Tomlinson and Susan Demirsky Allan in their book Leadership for Differentiating Schools & Classrooms. “The goal of a differentiated classroom is maximum student growth and individual success.”

The practice of differentiation can happen in relation to content, process, and product — or even classroom environment, depending on student need. There are students who require consistent differentiation and scaffolding due to learning disabilities or other factors, but the idea is still valid. All students deserve instruction that meets their true needs — not their assumed needs — and that offers opportunities for growth, not merely completion.

The difference between differentiation and scaffolding

Differentiation and scaffolding are not synonymous, but they are connected. “Differentiation refers to the idea of catering to each student’s individual needs and learning methods,” according to Mentoring Minds. “The idea of scaffolding is to provide structures that clarify learning objectives throughout the course of large projects.”

Scaffolds are meant to be removed

In some classrooms, scaffolding leads to a “dumbing down” of content and assignments and, for many students, those scaffolds never go away. When scaffolds are put up on a building, they aren’t meant to stay there forever. They’re in place to help build the structure, but then they’re removed piece by piece and the building stands on its own. The same logic can be applied to supports in class. Supportive materials like graphic organizers, essay planners, or checklists help students learn and practice skills but, eventually, those scaffolds need to back away to allow students to demonstrate those skills more independently. The assumption that some kids always need scaffolds fails to consider each student’s ability or background knowledge for each skill or topic. Differentiation should involve different types of support as well as challenges to push learners; both are linked to learning and mastery.

Pigeon-holing learners

Differentiation can get dangerous when it becomes a sorting method. It can trap students in a scaffold track from which it’s difficult to escape. “Some will tell you that there are three kinds of students — high, medium, and low. But this distinction is not very useful,”  says Robyn R. Jackson, author of Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching and founder of Mindsteps, an educational consulting firm. “Differentiating by achievement level often results in lowered expectations for struggling students and extra work for advanced students. Lowering the target for some students while raising the learning target for others is not differentiation — it’s tracking. Real differentiation takes into account where students are at a particular point in time. It doesn’t label kids “low,” “average,” and “advanced”; it groups students by their current understanding of the content and processes involved in a particular learning activity and then provides students with the targeted supports they need to successfully master that activity.”

Encouraging students to struggle a bit

Giving students the tools they need to learn or demonstrate their learning is crucial, but differentiation in practice can sometimes allow students to avoid challenges, especially if teachers never let students struggle even a little. Teachers must not only encourage students to persevere through some healthy struggles but also teach them how to pull from their arsenal and appropriately apply skills and knowledge.

Research shows that just because students know the strategies does not mean they will engage in the appropriate strategies. Therefore, I try to provide opportunities where students can explicitly practice learning how, when, and why to use which strategies effectively so that they can become self-directed learners,” says Kate Mills when speaking with Helyn Kim. Challenge and struggle can make learners uneasy, but over-scaffolding can turn students into dependent learners. “Letting students struggle and learn from their own mistakes can feel uncomfortable for both the students and the teacher,” says Melissa Purtee, an art teacher in North Carolina. “However, it results in students feeling personal ownership of the art they create and leads to learning built on deep understanding. That’s why I let my students struggle, even when it’s hard.”

Tests aren’t differentiated

There are exceptions, of course, but in general, standardized tests are not really differentiated. Students may receive testing accommodations, but the exam content is generally fixed. While there is certainly way more to education than tests, they are a fact of life — at least for now. When differentiation and scaffolding merely reduce content or unendingly add supports without ensuring that students master content or practice skills with lessening support, it can create a struggle when it comes to sitting for exams. Can a student write a timed essay without a graphic organizer? Or can they call upon the skill and create their own essay organizer on scratch paper during the test. Have they received less content because the class was simplified for them, or were they given opportunities that fit their learning needs to master the course content?

“Every time we rescue, hover, or otherwise save our children from a challenge, we send a very clear message: that we believe they are incompetent, and unworthy of our trust,” says Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. “Further, we teach them to be dependent on us and thereby deny them the very education in competence we are put here on this earth to hand down.”

Effective differentiation

Differentiation that provides multiple access points and varying opportunities for learning and revision is a good thing. Providing appropriate scaffolds to students who truly need it in order to build capacity is also a good thing. Knowing when to hold back supports or pull them away for the challenge does learners a great service. Maintaining the fidelity of a challenging and full curriculum and avoiding the tendency to merely simplify teaches our students to reach and learn deeply.  

“First, differentiation that is rooted in ineffective classroom practice cannot succeed. Trivial and fluffy curriculum remains trivial and fluffy even after differentiation,” says Tomlinson. “A teacher who does not see assessment as a continual window into the needs of her students has little sound footing from which to differentiate instruction. A teacher who cannot learn to trust and share responsibility with her students would, at best, have students seated in rows and completing varied worksheets silently and alone. Perhaps the most singular truth about providing leadership for differentiated classrooms is that you should often feel as though you are moving backward rather than forward!” See what your kids know, where they need to go, and how they need to get there. You may need to backtrack in order to move forward, but that’s surely better than reductive teaching.

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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