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 now has 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 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 should not obstruct 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 equated 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 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 opportunity 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.


  1. As a former public school teacher, I can only recall one year in my career where differentiation was adequately, not optimally, successful. That year, because of a university research study being conducted at our school to gather data on smaller class size, I had just 10 students in my Kindergarten class one year. One student needed acceleration into first grade reading and math, yet lagged way behind in small motor skills especially writing. Even with just 10 students and a teacher's aid, it was still difficult to manage having one student working on different material than the other students. Unfortunately, the differentiation was not continued for this student his following year in 1st grade.

    Differentiation is, as you said, a "code" word meant to make us all feel good about the education our children are receiving. It can mean simply giving a Kindergartener a "fat" pencil because his grip is not secure enough for a regular pencil, or it can be as involved as teaching a 5 year old first grade subjects while he is in Kindergarten. And having to differentiate at any degree for several students in a class of 20+ children is just next to impossible.

    Thanks, Gail, for parsing through the facts and information on differentiation and putting together an excellent article!

    1. Thank you, Celi. It is so important to hear feedback like yours from a "real" teacher who has been in the trenches and has seen how difficult it is to actually carry out this concept in a typical classroom. Most administrators don't listen to teachers and dismiss their negative feedback as "whining," when they really are telling it like it is. So appreciate your very useful feedback.

  2. Completely agree with this. I have seen teachers become so frustrated and feel pressured to do differentiated instruction, but it never works. Thanks for pointing this out.

    1. Thanks for your comments. It's a reminder that parents of gifted children are also quite attuned to their child's teacher's needs.

  3. I agree... the frustrating thing is, knowing the differentiation could work if schools were willing to do more flexible grouping, and also use volunteers more readily to help with such efforts. In my child's school, several parents were willing to help teachers do this but we were told no... there is no way a teacher with 25 kids or more per class can take the time to really differentiate. There are ways to make it work, but alas, the test scores and school grades don't seem to be affected by meeting gifted kids' needs, so it just goes on. This is why I am homeschooling now... hoping one day to find a school that can work for my children's needs. I am differentiating for two kids right now and that is keeping me busy enough.

    1. Thanks, anonymous. You raise a good point about why a lot of parents choose homeschooling. Gifted children are left out of the differentiated instruction equation because they seem to need the least from the teacher - and then they don't get the education they need. Good luck with your children.

  4. I am curious....what training/coursework do you have in gifted education?

    1. Anonymous,

      I am not sure about your question. I am a psychologist, not a teacher. I have made that clear throughout my blog. I speak my opinion based on what I have witnessed in my psychology practice, as an advocate, and through a thorough overview of the literature. Is there something you are trying to say?

  5. I am finishing my 20th year teaching high school science. My district (3 comprehensive, and 2 alternative high schools, with just over 3500 students total) during my career thus far has only offered one option in science for our state's 2 year graduation requirement in science. All students must take and pass 2 years of Integrated Science. Consequently I have 20 years experience teaching lower division students in heterogeneous classrooms. Only one factor is used to build sections: gender balance. Although my colleagues and I have always used differentiated instruction in our core heterogeneous program, it most certainly is not every day/every lesson. Only someone with no teaching experience would propose such a thing.....especially at the secondary level. I have 149 students this school year (2014-15). Here is a brief description of reality (for the last 20 years): When I run a differentiated project I can manage 3 levels of differentiation. These are projects that have parity with respect to final product and content. The pathway to success and finishing the project is designed with 3 levels of difficulty. I have always assigned the 3 levels in the moment. A student assigned to the easiest pathway in October may well find themselves in assigned the hardest pathway in March, and vise versa. In between these projects the curriculum and assessments is so varied that I am fully satisfied that I am doing my best to meet all students needs by the end of 180 days of instruction. But.....for all 20 years I have openly reported that in my mixed ability classes the one group that gets the least education are the kids whose skills and prior knowledge are significantly below grade level. Like others, my experience is that I am able to serve the gifted kids just fine (it's only 9-10th grade folks - plenty of AP and Honors options for these kids in 11-12th grade). And I always see C+/B- kids get motivated my being around and working with A students. But my F/D kids need something more doable for them. And yet I work in a district that defines meeting the needs of the kids who are significantly below grade level in their own course as restricting their future options (College). So be it. In the mean time these kids are the most unhappy, unmotivated, and saddest kids I teach.

    1. Skip, Thank you so much for your detailed reply. Your wealth of knowledge adds a great deal of perspective. You highlight how difficult this process is and how you have managed to accommodate it (which is something most skilled teachers have done for a long time).

      You highlight an overlooked point in the discussion - how struggling students also may fail to get their needs met in a large heterogeneous classroom. Not only is it incredibly hard for a teacher to manage this, but how demoralizing it must be for students who are well below grade level to feel they are the WORST in the class on a daily basis. How hard it must be for them to see students breeze through and grasp material much more easily. How shaming and discouraging this is. Administrators may think being in a heterogeneous classroom will "encourage" them to do a better job, but for those who truly struggle, it is a harsh sentence.

  6. "They eventually accept that classes will not be challenging." - this pretty much sums up the educational experience for my two gifted children aged 16 and 14. But, it should be added that:

    -They will become complacent with needing to complete the "required" busy work. Spending hours on a projects that the teacher will write 100% on and not give comments because the work is more advanced than their peers. So there isn't ever any push from the teacher. Their bare minimum on an assignment is at least 50% more than their peers. They never are challenged to "go beyond".

    - They will be resigned to having to do ALL or most of the work when a group project is assigned. They cannot handle it when a slow learner contributes sub par work to a group project, especially if they will all receive the same grade, not based on individual contributions. "Why should my grade suffer if so and so doesn't care enough to do their work."

    - They will learn to resent the teacher asking them to help reteach concepts to other students. My son knows more than his Honors Algebra 2 teacher, and works ahead with 100% understanding before the teacher even introduces the topic to the rest of the class. When asked what she could do for him, she said she could assign more work to challenge him, but then he is being singled out to do more than everyone else.

    - They will view school as a joke and a drudgery. They will throw themselves into other programs like MathCounts or Science Olympiad, just so that their desire for learning will be challenged.

    I have augmented my children's education by volunteering in their schools to create/run extra curricular programs for them and other interested students. I encourage the study of music and subjects that interest them on their own. I do not believe in homeschooling due to social issues - gifted kids need to get along with all types of people. Going to school is important for this, but there should be classes just for gifted kids, and school districts should be forced to accommodate a gifted student's educational needs in the social group that they are in and not only offer grade skipping as a solution. In my state, OH, gifted education falls under the special education umbrella, but is a non-funded mandate by the state. This means that gifted students are to be identified, but do not need to be served as a population. For a district of 3600 students k-12, we have one certified gifted teacher on staff. She teaches 4th and 5th ELA. But we have 2 intervention specialists PER GRADE from 1st -8th grades.

    I do not know what the solution is. I just wish it was better. In my experience, the school district says they differentiate, but in reality it is non-existent.

    1. Anonymous, You have beautifully summarized the sadly frequent classroom experiences - chronic boredom, disgust with school, the torture of group projects.It sounds like you have done a lot to help the situation as much as you can for your kids. I completely agree with your assessment, the need for socialization with like-minded peers, and the importance of other options in addition to acceleration. Good luck with your children and thanks for your comments.

    I am a bit confused reading your comment or perhaps I am not .i may have experienced the same during the opportunity I had to teacher. I am Seconday Teacher as well who has implemented differanted learning in my classrooms but could never imagine creating a lesson and managing an elementary grade classroom the same. I do not have 20 years of experience and agree that oh take experience and skill to implement this lesson technique . Due to the fact that our Public School system is control by Federal and State Funding , AND THAT FUNDING HAS DIRECTLY COME FROM OUR TAX DOLLARS, administration is forced to keep schools bringing up the scorces on revious testing when students already were 1-2 grade levels behind . Rather then funding the Top 2%!of the class that will change the world, earn 1+'degrees , ,make
    money , then pay towards our ttax symptoms .
    Rather then provide Free and Equal Education to un-document citizens/non-citizens- NON-TAX PAYER Who will NOT NE " protective citizens of the world "
    The his has already f-Ed up my health care