Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Why differentiated instruction fails gifted children

Why is differentiated instruction so controversial?

In a recent commentary, Jim Delisle highlighted the problems inherent in differentiated instruction, how it fails to serve diverse populations of students, how it places impossible demands upon teachers within heterogeneous classrooms, and how gifted students' needs are treated as a lower priority.

Differentiated instruction sounds great in theory; it's the implementation that falls short.

Dr. Delisle received a deluge of comments, some offering praise for his astute critique; others sharply critical of his views, claiming that differentiation really, really works.

Some key points in this debate include the following:

1. Teachers truly want to differentiate and meet every child's needs... but most cannot achieve it in a typical classroom environment.

"Differentiation" lends a name to what good teachers have done for years: accommodate the different learning needs of their students. The concept sounds great in theory. Let's make sure that each child's educational needs are served. Let's have classrooms that offer a range of learning opportunities at any given time. But the reality is that teaching students with diverse educational needs is a monumental task. A typical mixed-ability classroom might include gifted learners, slow learners, ESL students, children with behavioral problems or learning disabilities, children "in the middle" and high achievers.

So how are teachers expected to differentiate instruction within a heterogeneous classroom setting? Carol Ann Tomlinson, a well-known advocate of differentiation, outlines "core principles of differentiated instruction:"
 "One of these is what we call 'respectful tasks.' This means that everybody's work needs to be equally engaging, equally appealing, and equally important." 
While this principle is commendable, it requires a degree of flexibility that few teachers could hope to achieve. Talented, experienced teachers may be able to differentiate instruction some of the time, and do it well. But can this be accomplished on a daily basis? As Dr. Delisle summarized in a rebuttal to his initial commentary: "differentiation in a heterogeneous classroom setting is a difficult, at times impossible, task to complete for a single teacher."

In addition, one of Tomlinson's core principles recommends that schools avoid grouping children based on readiness or skill:
"Another important principle is that of flexible grouping. This means you don't arbitrarily divide students or automatically group them with kids of the same skill level. You need to systematically move kids among similar readiness groups, varied readiness groups, mixed learning-profile groups, interest groups, mixed interest groups, and student-choice groups."
Regardless of concerns related to the effectiveness of these recommendations, how can any teacher possibly achieve this dizzying array of expectations on a daily basis?

2. Differentiation is used as "code" to justify eliminating programs geared toward children with special needs.

Differentiation may have been developed with the best of intentions as a model for meeting each child's individual needs. However, it has now become "code" for the elimination of ability grouping. Frequently touted by school administrators, differentiation is presented to stakeholders as proof that heterogeneous classes work, as the antidote to tracking and as the solution to educating children with diverse educational needs within a single classroom. In a recent commentary, Finn illuminates many of the problems with differentiated instruction and claims that:
"...teachers are tasked with customizing, tailoring, and individualizing the instruction so that administrators and policy types can declare with straight faces that their classrooms are diverse and inclusive and that every child's singular education needs are being satisfactorily met."
How can a teacher differentiate instruction every day for every topic? How is that even possible? This is a recipe for burn-out, hopelessness and resentment. Or a set-up for cutting corners and only occasionally differentiating. Many settle into managing classroom behavioral problems, pulling along struggling students, covering what material they can, and teaching to the middle. Gifted children are typically a low priority in the chaotic demands of the classroom.

Delisle succinctly highlights the dilemma:
"By having dismantled many of the provisions we used to offer to kids on the edges of learning (classes for gifted kids, classes for kids who struggle to learn, and classes for those whose behaviors are disruptive to the learning process of others), we have sacrificed the learning of virtually every student...The verdict is clear: differentiation is a promise unfulfilled, a boondoggle of massive proportions."
3. Differentiation advocates often point to equity as justification for their policy. 

Differentiation advocates claim that ability grouping is unfair because it might penalize children with learning disabilities, slow learners, or even average ability children. They point to the failure of tracking, where many bright and capable students, often students of color, languished in lower tracked classes with no opportunity to advance. They highlight research suggesting that lower or average ability students improve in academic environments where they are challenged.
They correctly note how children of color frequently have been overlooked for gifted identification and are underrepresented in gifted programs. Recent reports document the excellence gap and highlight how gifted minority or low income students are ignored.

While few would ever support resumption of a rigid tracking system where students were barred from advancing, the concept of ability grouping often has been confused with tracking. Many of detracking's staunchest supporters have pointed to the system's rigidity and how lower tracked classes are frequently served by the least skilled teachers. Yet ability grouping can be fluid and does not prevent advancement. And struggling students deserve the most skilled teachers available. There are also conflicting and contradictory findings related to detracking, even for low ability students. See Loveless for an informative article about this issue.

In their groundbreaking paper "Inequity in equity: How 'equity' can lead to inequity for high potential students," Benbow and Stanley highlight the political trends and misconceptions that have derailed efforts to educate gifted and high ability children. According to the authors:
"...equity is the result of an extreme form of egalitarianism in American society and schools, which involves the pitting of equity against excellence rather than promoting both equity and excellence, anti-intellectualism, the 'dumbing-down' of the curriculum, equating aptitude and achievement testing with elitism...and the insistence of schools to teach all students from the same curriculum at the same level."
Benbow also highlights the disservice that occurs when giftedness is falsely associated with higher income levels.
"There are many gifted kids coming from lower socioeconomic-status backgrounds. When you remove programs for the are disproportionately hurting those kids the most."
 4. But what about gifted children? 

Differentiation advocates have not supplied data showing educational benefits of heterogeneous classrooms for gifted children. Most studies, along with meta-analytic reviews, typically support the merits of ability grouping for these students. Yet heterogeneous classes persist and are the norm in most school districts for a variety of practical, financial and philosophical reasons. Unable to justify how it serves their academic needs, some school districts claim that mixed ability classes broaden gifted students' lives through interactions with non-gifted students. However, it is hard to imagine a community where this opportunity does not occur every single day. It happens on the playground, at the bus stop, on sports teams, and in most of their academic classes. Gifted children are constantly surrounded by the "real world" of children and adults who think differently than they do and who expect them to "fit in." When gifted students are finally able to participate in ability-grouped classes, it is often quite a relief; finally they can relax and be themselves, engage with like-minded peers, and learn at a challenging pace.

Gifted children learn to "adapt" to heterogeneous classes. They eventually accept that classes will not be challenging. They might respond by entertaining themselves (reading novels, drawing, playing games), causing trouble (talking too much, becoming the class clown), daydreaming and not paying attention, or pestering the teacher with questions beyond the scope of the class. Regardless of whether their adaptation to boredom and frustration is creative or a nuisance to teachers, gifted children quickly realize that school is not designed for them. They must wait and wait until eventually, when the teacher has the time and opportunity to "differentiate instruction" for them, a more challenging instruction might be available. But even when this occurs, they lack a large group of peers with whom they can share ideas and engage in discussion.

5. How differentiation might work for gifted children

The debate regarding the benefits and drawbacks of differentiated instruction hinges on the complexity of classroom demands, not necessarily on the concept of meeting each child's unique learning needs. It seems clear that differentiation would work best within smaller, homogeneous classes, where the range of students' educational needs is limited. This would minimize the demands placed on teachers, and permit the fine-tuned educational planning and creativity for which differentiated instruction is intended. A recent blog post, for example, described how differentiated instruction worked in the author's relatively small gifted classroom.

Differentiation, as it stands now, has been touted as the solution to detracking, ensuring equity, and managing overwhelming classroom size. If school districts and policy wonks stopped promoting differentiation as the panacea for every educational dilemma, maybe a reasonable dialogue could ensue. Children require targeted instruction all of the time, not just when an especially talented teacher can manage it. Or when resources are plentiful. Or within a small classroom with few "demanding" students. There is a place for differentiated instruction. But relying on it to meet the needs of all children in one setting dilutes its purpose and is a disservice to every child.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Are gifted individuals really perfectionists?

One trait commonly associated with giftedness is perfectionism. Both gifted children and adults are often seen as high achievers who pursue excellence and suffer from a sense of failure if they don't succeed. Articles linking giftedness and perfectionism, such as Silverman's, describe different forms of perfectionistic behavior, ranging from healthy to "neurotic," and imply that it is more prevalent among the gifted.

But are gifted people really perfectionists?

Are they really more likely to be perfectionistic than anyone else?

And are we confusing perfectionism with a healthy drive to excel?

I raise these questions because I have not seen an overabundance of perfectionism in my psychotherapy practice with gifted adolescents and adults. Contrary to the (mostly anecdotal) reports in the literature, my clinical experience has suggested otherwise: gifted people, like everyone else, are unique, and in this case, have not necessarily cornered the market on perfectionism. And some research (see below) has also challenged this impression of widespread perfectionism among the gifted. Here are some observations:

1. Gifted individuals often strive for excellence, but their drive is internally motivated.

Gifted children and adults crave meaningful, engaging and stimulating activities that challenge them. Praise from others for their accomplishments or achieving specified goals may bring momentary good feelings, but internal satisfaction is what matters most. Winning an award, nailing an audition, or acing an exam is exciting, but gifted people are quick to appreciate that this form of recognition is temporary and situational. If anything, external demands and goals are often seen as a nuisance and a barrier to fulfilling their true passion.

2. Anyone can be a perfectionist

Perfectionism is not reserved just for the gifted; anyone can be a perfectionist, regardless of intellectual abilities. In fact, those who struggle academically may judge themselves more harshly and suffer from low self-esteem. Regardless of innate abilities, people who doubt themselves, base their self-worth on validation from others, and believe they must conform to external standards are most likely to exhibit perfectionistic traits. These are the people who feel anxious, worry about what others think of them, panic before tests, and exaggerate the importance of success and failure. They may despair because of a slightly less than perfect grade, labor for hours over homework and projects, and obsessively check for mistakes. And it extends well beyond academics and work. We have all seen perfectionists who cannot rest until every dish is washed, every article of clothing is in place, and whose home is spotless.

In fact, many of the traits associated with perfectionism are inconsistent with those commonly seen among gifted people. In order to alleviate anxiety, perfectionists tend to be conforming, detail-oriented, conscientious, and seek external approval. This is counter to how most gifted individuals approach their world. Intrinsically motivated and non-conforming, they often question rules (sometimes even making their own rules), think creatively and refuse to be defined by external norms.

And many gifted individuals do not reach their potential...and don't even try. Perfection is not their concern. Frequently labeled as underachievers, they take short-cuts, develop strategies for exerting the least amount of effort possible, and coast through school or work. Their inertia often goes undetected by teachers or employers since they usually meet their goals. Sometimes they miscalculate, though, and end up failing the exam, missing that important interview or deadline, or handing in an incomplete project, and then have to suffer the consequences.

3. Perfectionism is not more common among gifted people

Perfectionism is not necessarily more prevalent among gifted individuals than among anyone else, although may be more common among high achievers and among women, who have been rewarded for their "good behavior" since childhood. Research by Stornelli and colleagues and by Parker, for example, failed to identify any significant difference between gifted and non-gifted children on measures of perfectionism. Parker concluded that:
"...the frequent anecdotal reports of greater perfectionism among the gifted may be a product of differential labeling patterns of similar behaviors..."
Why have there been so many accounts of perfectionism among gifted people? Perhaps intensity and a drive for excellence were confused with the disabling rigid perfectionism that actually interferes with performance. Perhaps underachieving gifted students were not identified (an unfortunately common occurrence), and therefore not included in these studies. Perhaps the criteria for identifying gifted students in some studies was too broadly defined and included bright high achieving students in addition to those who were clearly gifted. Whatever the reasons, the assumption that gifted people are necessarily perfectionistic, and possess this trait to a greater extent than the rest of the population, certainly warrants further research.

4. Perfectionism is a means of managing and containing anxiety

Perfectionists are plagued by fear, and their attempts to be perfect and please others is a defense against this underlying anxiety and insecurity. They are always looking over their shoulder, wary that any flaw or imperfection will be discovered. They overextend themselves, preparing well beyond what is necessary to minimize any possibility of failure. Terrified of disapproval, they conform to whatever is expected, and suppress their own needs or desires. Like any maladaptive coping behavior, it backfires, and the original intention (to suppress anxiety and restore a sense of calm) is never achieved.

5.  Perfectionism is debilitating and distressing 

Perfectionism is maladaptive and often linked to more serious emotional disturbance. Whether a defense against anxiety, a means of seeking approval, or an attempt to boost low self-esteem, it is problematic. Distinctions between "healthy and neurotic" perfectionism create confusion and downplay the seriousness of the behavior. As Greenspon notes:
"...a body of literature asserts that some perfectionism is healthy, even though a critical review of this literature finds no factual or theoretical basis for such a claim. The commonly asserted belief in a dichotomy between healthy and dysfunctional perfectionism is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of perfectionism, in part confusing the concept with striving for excellence..."
When self-worth hinges on grades and performance, when less than perfection is viewed as failure, perfectionism becomes a ball and chain. Many perfectionists actually perform worse than expected because their anxiety interferes with their performance, they procrastinate until the last minute, or they give up completely if they fail to meet their own high standards. At its worst, perfectionism can trigger low self-esteem and additional unintended anxiety, and has been linked to serious mental health problems such as depression, eating disorders, and even suicide.

Final thoughts...

Let's think twice before assuming that gifted people are any more likely to be perfectionists than anyone else. A healthy desire to achieve excellence and "perfect" a meaningful task should not be confused with true perfectionism. Gifted people may hold high standards for themselves and strive to excel, but this may come from a realistic assessment of their actual potential. They realize what they can accomplish if they put in the effort. And if they are fortunate, anxiety and perfectionism will not block their path.

Perfectionism may seem like a behavior that is impossible to eliminate. A future blog post will address some tips for reducing perfectionistic behaviors. But If you or a loved one struggle with perfectionism, consider counseling with a licensed mental health professional, who can address the behaviors, thoughts, and anxiety associated with it and encourage new coping strategies.

This blog is part of the Hoagies Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Anxiety.
To read more blogs in the hop, click on the following link: