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Aurora Institute

Differentiation to Mass Customization: Same Goal, Different Eras

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Craig Schieber

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

If there is one example that best exemplifies the paradigm shift from industrial to information eras, it is the example used by Todd Rose in The End of Average (Rose, 2016). In this book, he outlines the shortcomings of the concept of average. He talks about how the US Air Force had to make a major mental shift in how they thought about designing jet cockpits. Jet cockpits were initially designed to fit the average sized pilot. Sadly, through a series of events, they found that none of 4,000 pilots shared all ten physical body traits of their “average” pilot. In fact, only a small percentage had three measurements in common with their model of average. The Air Force was designing cockpits for non-existent pilots. In response, the Air Force now builds cockpits that are adjustable to varying degrees, so that you might say they are designing to the edges rather than the average. Pilots of great size variation can now fly jets.

In the case above, the Air Force found that the use of the statistical process of averaging was not effective in informing the design of jet cockpits. The same lesson is being learned in the education world in this information age. An example of this comes from the heroic efforts by teachers to meet individual student needs through differentiated instruction within the paradigmatic structure of the industrial era education system. In discussion of the example, I will highlight where Problems, Tools, and Measurements of each paradigm are being used (see earlier posts about these terms).

Carol Ann Tomlinson, a leading proponent of differentiation, defines it as, “ensuring that what a student learns, how he or she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he or she has learned is a match for that student’s readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning” (Rock, Gregg, Ellis, & Gable). Teachers can differentiate through adapting curriculum, instruction, or assessment. The suggestions for adaptations all run into logical barriers when attempted in the structure of an industrial era classroom.

  1. Curriculum – The suggestion to teachers is to adapt curriculum to the student’s ability or even interests. However, if the teacher is successful, that could mean students end the school year still further behind or farther ahead the standard held for that grade level. The teacher would be considered a failure for not getting the delayed student to standard, and the accelerated student will be even farther ahead from other learners in the cohort. The curriculum tool of the industrial era was standardized curriculum calibrated to average student performance. This tool does not work well for meeting individual student needs. A new tool, such as scaffolded curriculum in which students can progress at their own pace, would work better. But to use that tool, the user must let go of the underlying belief of the industrial era that schools are like a factory and as such must turn out products designed around one set of standards. It appears in the information era, there will need to be an acceptance that not all students will rise to the same levels of competence in every subject. Ultimately, is that really any different from the reality of output of the industrial schools? A student graduating from high school with all Ds and Cs has a different level of proficiency than a student with As and Bs.
  2. Instruction – In differentiated instruction, teachers design multiple ways to deliver the educational experience to students. This could be through books, videos, lectures, or small group projects, to name the most common. The actual success a teacher may have in creating these plans and running them all at the same time in a classroom has to be challenging, if not impossible, in some cases. Industrial era education is built around the structure (tools) of one classroom, one teacher, one lesson, one test (measurement) for many different kids. In the information era, information is ubiquitous. Many additional information tools, such as massive digital text and video libraries, are available, giving us many more options to customize the student instructional experience. The teacher’s main purpose in the industrial era was to deliver knowledge (a problem being solved in the industrial era paradigm) whereas in the information era, it is the purpose of the teacher to facilitate and guide the learner (a problem being solved in the information era paradigm). Seen from the paradigm shift lens, how a resource or tool is used in one era can change in another era.
  3. Assessment – In a differentiated classroom, a teacher designs different assessments to match student needs. One student may take a test, another do a project, and another write a paper. That works fine until the final state standardized test for the year is administered (a measurement of the industrial era paradigm). While some accommodations are made in this testing, it is nothing comparable to what ideal differentiated assessment might include. At the heart of industrial era mindset is that students are treated as a raw material that is being operated upon. Inherent in this view is that testing must be standardized to be valid and reliable. The system is built to turn out a standardized product (a problem of the industrial era paradigm). Anything not standard is labeled as such. In the information era, mass customization is the standard. That is, each individual has products shaped to his or her preference. Amazon and Apple services provide good examples of how technology allows experiences to be modeled to the individual. Personalization becomes the standard for differentiated experiences which seems a conundrum built into the paradigm (a problem of the information era paradigm).

It would be hard to find someone who would argue that providing individualized instructional support for all students is not a virtuous goal. But the ability to achieve this goal is greatly affected by the historical era in which one lives. Historical eras have ways of impacting every aspect of our lives. As we move from one era to another, it is important to realize that the leaving of the tools and measurements used in one era is not an indictment of them, just a part of the evolutionary historical process. Industrial era schooling served its purpose of moving masses of peoples through an education system using the tools of the day. Now in the information era, we take similar journeys using new tools and measurements to reach those ends.


Rock, M. L., Gregg, M., Ellis, E., & Gable, R.A. (2008). REACH: A framework for differentiating classroom instruction. Preventing School Failure, 52 (2), 31-47

Rose, T. L., (2016). The End of Average. Harper Collins: New York.

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Craig Schieber is Director of Academic Innovation at City University of Seattle. Over the past 40 years Craig has built a reputation as an innovator and leader of change in education. His work has focused on building student agency, project-based learning, inquiry learning, and personalizing the educational experience. Current efforts focus on the development of competency-based education and the many aspects of teaching that are encompassed in this historical shift in education pedagogy. Craig has been recognized with: The White House Presidential Teacher’s Award, Who’s Who in American Schools, and The Golden Acorn Award. Contact cschiebersea (at) gmail (dot) com and @cschieber