A few years ago, research told us once again, that all children learn differently and as teachers, we must meet those needs through “differentiation” in the classroom. Books, articles, charts and conferences surfaced by the millions to help us make sense of this not so new insight about learners. Below is one example.
The differentiation dilemma is complex because it does not take into account the school system’s inability to actually accommodate it. Differentiation is mostly intended for heterogeneous classrooms where age is the single most common factor. Grouping learners by age in an assigned grade level is less designed to benefit students and more for the benefit of the system. It really flies in the face of known child and adolescent development theory. One child may learn to read at five while another at eight or nine. In our current system, the five year old may be identified as gifted and the nine year old is labeled learning disabled.
I am reminded of my own four children and their individual growth during their first few years of life.
- My oldest son sat up straight at five months and walked unassisted at nine months. When he started to fully communicate, around ten months old, it was in complete phrases or sentences like; time to play, go for a walk, want a cookie.
- My second son sat up at six months, walked at ten months and talked almost immediately and frequently and still does. He also experienced persistent ear infections which required medical attention.
- My daughter, third in line, sat up at nine months, walked at eleven months and learned to express herself by pointing until she was able to formulate her words. Her two older brothers often spoke for her. She took command of the situation by physically pushing them out of her conversations.
- My third son and last born, sat up at seven months, walked at ten months and was reading words from flash cards at 24 months much to the surprise of his older siblings who learned to read much later.
In the school schemata, that batches students by age and grade level, each of my children at five years old would be in different developmental stages with regard to their learning. Now multiply those four by six or seven and you have the average Kindergarten classroom. Kindergartners are all over the map when it comes to experiences, exposure, support structures, and health issues. Teachers, often successfully, corral these school newbies into a cohesive unit to begin the process of “schooling” them.
The grade level curriculum covers about a ten month period targeting the identified grade level standards often written by an unknown entity which has determined what students should know and be able to do by the end of that grade level. Milestone markers and yearly goals are clearly articulated and progress towards those goals are reported via student grades on a report card. This system is familiar to most and rarely questioned unless a student is not meeting the goals in the given time frame. What if students don’t meet the goal by the end of the school year? What if they don’t walk unassisted until four months later?
Some schools employ the failing method which requires retention or a “do-over” of sorts. Others push students on with identified interventions to get them up to speed. Still others do nothing and continue the practice of assigning failing grades on report cards. The student themselves are keenly aware that something has gone wrong in their schooling process. Something is out of kilter, they have dropped a ball and its their fault. Internal and external pressure places a heavy weight on their shoulders to do better. Some eventually retrieve that dropped ball while others do not.
Differentiation is supposed to help alleviate this dilemma because we are offering instruction and assessment in a way that meets the particular needs of our students. While effective differentiation may help to support students in their learning, without including either more or less time, it is an incomplete model of differentiation. If a student needs three or four more months to master a concept we can’t give it to them. Kindergarten is over in June.
What would it take to think out of the box with regard to the current grade level schemata in our schools? Some argue that a time frame is necessary because life is full of deadlines and children need to learn that fact. Really? I’ll try to remember that when my next grandchild enters the world. I hope to support their individual growth with dignity, respect and as much time as they need to realize their potential and gifting. Learning is not over in ten months increments. Learning spans a lifetime.