At an event the other day with a group of teachers I had just met, one made the offhand comment that the real world doesn’t differentiate. Her opinion was met with general agreement by the other teachers.
The undertone of her comment was that we’re setting students up by modifying our instruction to allow for their individual differences. After being accommodated throughout their education, how will students survive the “quiet desperation” of their “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives?”
So, maybe we shouldn’t differentiate, because whereas students may learn more when we do, they’ll be weaker adults for having been so obliged.
Driving home from the event, I realized my new acquaintance was just plain wrong, and it takes only a few examples prove that point:
- The tax code and government entitlements differentiate depending on multiple factors in a person’s life – how much they make, their health, their marital and family status, home ownership, and so forth.
- Sporting leagues differentiate through categories based on ability, gender, size, and age. Most states have divisions for interscholastic competitions based on school population. I have friends who race and compete well in their age bracket but wouldn’t stand a chance without the differentiation. What are the minor leagues if not differentiation?
- How many accomplished professionals pay gratitude to a seasoned veteran who “showed them the ropes” or to a structured mentoring or apprentice program, that amount to differentiation?
- Don’t golfers use handicaps to make the game more competitive?
- The Americans with Disabilities Act seeks to ensure that people with disabilities have complete access to the public arena.
- Many cities have High Occupancy Vehicle lanes for carpoolers.
So in fact, we differentiate all the time all over the place. Sometimes our motives for differentiation are generous, sometimes selfish, sometimes mean. But no matter its motivation, society is awash with differentiation.
So what does that suggest for education? Maybe we should infuse more differentiation and not limit it to instructional practices. Teachers ask the question on Facebook all the time: If we’re expected to differentiate our teaching why do we give standardized test? Career paths should be differentiated by endowing (and compensating) teachers not just for years, education, and added duties like sponsoring clubs but also for roles that include mentoring, delivering professional development, research, and administration, to mention just four. Teachers could be evaluated an a differentiated scale based on their experience and assignment, with higher expectations placed on more accomplished teachers.
Of course most of this is happening somewhere, but only in bits and pieces and not systematically with comprehensive forethought.
I doubt I’ll see the colleagues I met at the event again, but if I did, I think I’d bring up differentiation in the real world one more time.
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