Skip to main content

Why I will no longer work to differentiate instruction by Lisa Nielsen

I used to be a big fan of differentiated instruction. It all came together for me when I learned about the Schoolwide Enrichment Model at ConFratute and then helped schools use Renzulli Learning which is a terrific differentiation machine. A couple years later Marc Prensky’s book Teaching Digital Natives---Partnering for Real Learning was released and he even acknowledged me in it!! This also became part of the differentiation game to me. I began speaking and writing about differentiated instruction more and more and explaining to teachers that this really wasn’t that hard. Especially if we focused on student centered learning like the teachers I wrote about in my post, Student Driven Learning = Passion-Based Classrooms.

I realized that when teachers gave up control and empowered students to use the tools they want and meet learning goals in the way they choose, then true differentiation could begin and it wasn’t all on the shoulders of the teacher to figure out how to do this. So you might be wondering why, if I’m such a big fan of differentiated instruction, I have decided it’s not something I am willing to do any longer.

It was Tom Welch who reached out and asked me to join him in abandoning the term differentiating "instruction." He explained, it this way:

What we really need to help occur in classroom is differentiated "learning." This accomplishes the student ownership of the learning, allows for a passion-driven approach, shifts the responsibility for the learning to the learner (where it belongs) and changes the teacher's role to what you consistently advocate. There also also many other reasons -- like the elimination of the typical classroom culture of dependency, and the way this allows learning to go viral by removing artificial timelines that ignore individual learner needs, passions and differences.

He goes on to recognize that many teachers groan when anyone talks about differentiated instruction because it just makes them feel inadequate. He shares however, that when he speaks about differentiated learning, and shares the way this shifts responsibility, etc, they begin to look at many elements of the learning process in a different way.

Tom is right! The conversation must evolve from “Differentiating Instruction” to “Differentiating Learning.” Our students will thank us!

Lisa Nielsen is best known as creator of The Innovative Educator blog and Transforming Education for the 21st Century learning network. Lisa is an outspoken and passionate advocate of innovative education. She is frequently covered by local and national media for her views on "Thinking Outside the Ban" and determining ways to harness the power of technology for instruction and providing a voice to educators and students. Based in New York City, Ms. Nielsen has worked for more than a decade in various capacities helping schools and districts to educate in innovative ways that will prepare students for 21st century success. Her first book “Teaching Generation Text” is set for a fall 2011 release. You can follow her on Twitter @InnovativeEdu.

Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.