In the NCLB era of disaggregated student achievement data, we have zoomed in on our population of struggling learners, grouped into their age appropriate cohort. That up close and personal view of our students has unleashed a demand on our educators to differentiate instruction in order for our struggling students to meet the bar. Differentiation is as much a philosophy and a belief in teaching and learning as it is a set of orientations to the process, product, content, and environment. But is it really possible for teachers to fully differentiate learning in order to meet these student needs?
Prior to working in the world of competency education, I provided many professional development opportunities from courses, workshops, and small group and individual coaching for teachers and school leaders to learn more about this practice we call differentiation. I know I became a better teacher myself the more my thinking opened up to planning student choice, voice, and readiness in a variety of learning settings for my students. However, I have some deep-seated doubts about how differentiation has been fully embraced by most educators. Differentiation is a set of practices in response to teacher reflection. Yet, many educators are faced with having to teach to specific time-based curricular objectives demanded by programs or local requirements for fidelity to programs that do little to differentiate needs. Many educators are faced with such a wide range of student readiness that it is incredibly challenging to plan for and meet these needs with limited resources. When asked, many educators say that differentiation is too overwhelming. They may embrace a particular aspect of differentiation that works for them. One teacher I know excels in differentiating homework based on formative assessment daily. Another teacher excels at offering student choice in product. Yet, many teachers readily admit they know about differentiation, want to differentiate, but don’t have the planning time either alone or collaboratively to pull it off every day.
I still advocate for educators to differentiate whenever possible to meet student needs. Yet, deep within my thinking, I have come to realize that differentiation should not be left solely to the teacher to plan, prepare, and implement.
If we truly believe that each child can learn, then shouldn’t we build a system that works that way? We should not be depending on individual practitioners to make this happen. Our systems should be designed for our educators to be able to plan and implement these differentiated practices in a resilient fashion. Why should teachers be faced with classes of such a broad range of student performance proficiency, knowing that resources fall short in being able to meet the demand we have created? Response to Intervention has been one systemic approach to meet student readiness issues but in many systems, grouping is fixed for a year rather than used flexibly to move students along based on learning targets.
In a competency based system, students move on when ready—not in response to a school calendar. Grouping patterns are temporary and flexible with proficiency being determined through performance assessment. In this setting the system is differentiated, allowing the teacher to more fully put differentiated practice in place. If the traditional grade levels we assign by age cohort no longer drive our learner cohorts, how would we be able to use our student support resources differently?
Every time I wrap my mind around differentiation and competency education, I find synchrony. Where differentiation is a struggle to plan and implement in traditional systems, it provides the guiding principles for designing systems of learning for students learning anytime, at any place, and at their pace.
Rose Colby is an experienced educator. She taught high school biology and chemistry and has served as assistant principal and principal at several middle and high schools. She has been working with schools to develop competency-based learning and assessment models for the past three years. She is the co-author with Fred Bramante of Off the Clock: Moving from Time to Competency.