How Differentiated Instruction Misses the Point

The groundbreaking developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky described a zone of proximal development where children can learn best. It is a place between that which is too easy and that which is too hard; a productive space where the guidance of a person more competent in a task can help a learner to reach his or her potential. The most effective teachers work to create these zones to meet the learning needs of individual students.

The zone of Proximal Development is going to be at different places in different subjects for different students at different times in their lives. This presents an insurmountable challenge for our entire educational system, which is predicated on a false belief that the individuality of students is a problem to work with to bring them to an identical grade level. In fact, every student is where she or he should be in order to grow to her or his next level of understanding. It’s not like trying to construct identical bicycles out of parts that differ, in some sort of assembly line with a rigid time frame delineated by grade levels.

Beyond the conceit of developmentally ignorant grade-level standards, the whole idea of the classroom is fatally flawed. Classroom groups are great for practicing cooperation and learning teamwork. But the classroom unit of 12 to 30 students does not serve the individual students well outside of those activities. The teacher is tasked with the impossible mission of standardized learning outcomes for all students in an unnatural institutional setting antithetical to the developmental needs of children. This results in a continuous tension between freedom and compliance, which is stifling to many students and stressful to teachers and students alike. It is ultimately dehumanizing to everyone involved.

The compliance is only necessary because we are trying to teach a group of individuals as if they were one person. The hoped for learning outcome is designed as if they were all the same person, even if we try different methods to “deal with ” their innate differences.

Is school that respects the individual even possible? It might exist in a small setting with multi-age groupings. There, students could develop in their zone of proximal learning for every subject without the harmful concept of “grade level” defining success and failure. Until we abolish schools as they currently exist and replace them with compassionate learning communities respectful of everyone’s different needs, we are doing violence to our children in the name of education.

Institutional Racism, Poverty, and American Education

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8 Responses to How Differentiated Instruction Misses the Point

  1. Mike Whybark says:

    I believe you neglect the well known example of Rock n Roll High School.

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  2. […] More on school reform Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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  3. Samir Hafza says:

    These are very sobering and intriguing thoughts. Thank you.

    I was quite familiar with the zone of proximal development, without knowing its name. When I learned English as a second language in school in Lebanon, I was subjected to the same “dehumanizing” environment. I was a wreck (and a Trek). I hated English. But when I was left in my own proximal zone at home or anywhere-else-but-school, my English started to develop—movies without Arabic subtitles, cartoon, reading fun material of my own choosing at the library, mingling with English-speaking foreigners, etc.

    But I have a concern, or rather a question. If we were to “abolish” schools the way they exist now, wouldn’t we need to do the same for the work environment? Save for a tiny number of companies like Google, where individuality is highly valued, how could an employee do well in, say, a rigid place like Boeing, Wall Street or a medical center?

    Giving the unlikelihood of this taking place, parents should work hard in letting their sons and daughters find their own ZPD.

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  4. Naturally I agree with the entire content of your wonderful thought piece here, having explored these same topics in grad school. It is a large part of why we’re homeschooling, though finding that “just right challenge” can be challenging itself.

    I did have a question about the title, though. I thought the term “differentiated instruction” referred in large part to what you are prescribing — the customization of curriculum for individual students.

    So wouldn’t the curriculum approach be okay the the real problem be with the lack of individual instructors, not individual curriculum? Or am I misunderstanding the term?

    My struggle is that I want to customize learning for my kids, but I also resonate with the Reggio Emilia approach which suggests knowledge is also socially constructed. So I want my kids’ learning to be with a safe social environment of kids and adults. I always wonder if thats why some of my homeschooling colleagues have large families — so the can have the built in group environment that I crave.

    For me the ideal arrangement would be to have a learning tribe for my kids to do group activities (art, music, science experiments, math games, physical activities, etc.) in a broad age range cohert, and then breakout sessions where I help each of my kids with their individual curriculum — or even better a group of 3-5 kids about in the same place.

    This is a critical conversation for our kids and our country. Thanks for advancing the dialogue!

    (You aren’t by chance a GC Maple Leaf are you??)

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    • EricIndiana says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I don’t know what a GC Maple Leaf is, so I guess I’m not one, though I am formerly from Indiana. Your name/link doesn’t work when I click it, by the way.

      I chose the title to try to be provocative and challenge people to think about whether differentiated instruction, which is clearly a good practice, sort of helps us to ignore the bigger problem in schools, that standardization is the end result.

      So yes, we absolutely need to differentiate for all learners, I just want it to be for the purpose of helping children get to where they want and need to go and not to get them to all pass the same test at the same time.

      I like the tribe idea. A small, community school could do something like that if you had like-minded people who also had the time to commit.

      Eric

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  5. […] How Differentiated Instruction Misses the Point: Our educational system is predicated on a false belief that the individuality of students is a problem to work with to bring them to an identical grade level. In fact, every student is where she or he should be in order to grow to her or his next level of understanding. It’s not like trying to construct identical bicycles out of parts that differ, in some sort of assembly line with a rigid time frame delineated by grade levels. READ FULL POST […]

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