Getting Real about Differentiation

This past year, I was privileged to attend the Association for Middle Level Education conference. This is a huge, national conference in which thousands of educators interested in teaching young adolescents come together to share ideas and strategies and stories of life in the middle. One of the best sessions I had the chance to attend was on formative assessment, summative judgment, and descriptive feedback presented by Rick Wormeli. In the session, Rick shared this cartoon, which I had seen before:

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“For a fair selection, everybody has to take the same exam: Please climb that tree.”


The argument usually made by folks sharing this cartoon is that we should have different standards of assessment for different students, because the students are clearly unique individuals with different strengths and weaknesses and it isn’t fair to hold them all to the same standards. Because it’s not going to be any problem for the monkey to climb the tree, right? But how is the fish going to get up there? Or the elephant? Or even the dog?

Before I go further, you should know that Rick is a master teacher, and a recognized expert in several related fields within the realm of education. In his writings and presentations he is a tireless advocate for differentiated instruction (tailoring teaching so that every student learns), formative assessment (“taking the temperature” while learning is ongoing), descriptive feedback (explaining to students what they are doing well…and not so well…and giving them the chance to act on it), and collaborative practice (teachers getting their heads together to talk about their teaching and offer critique, challenging each other to get better.) In this presentation, Rick pulled all of these threads together and began weaving them into a seamless piece.

Rick gave us a new twist on this cartoon. He suggested that we actually should hold students to the same standard.

I want to let that sink in for a second. We should hold all of our students to the same standard. If demonstrating understanding of Newton’s laws of motion is a critical part of the curriculum that all students need to master, every student must demonstrate this understanding. If writing a persuasive essay is a key part of the curriculum, every student must be able to write a persuasive essay. If climbing the tree is a necessary part of the curriculum, then we simply must have every student get up that tree. Even the fish!

Now that might sound unfair. How is the fish going to climb the tree?

Here’s the catch: it’s incumbent upon us as educators to do everything we can to help our students meet the high standard. This will likely mean allowing different paths to reaching the standard, and providing ongoing, descriptive feedback to students as they are working to meet the standard that has been set: what is working, what is not working, what else they might try.

To illustrate, Rick shared a series of cartoons drawn by a student in response to the classic cartoon above…

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Please remember that these are just an illustration to the point, but I think you get the idea: allowing for multiple pathways (or maybe I should say “multiple evidences of learning?”) is the way to ensure that each unique student will be able to show that they have mastered this part of the curriculum.

As I reflect on this, I think the crucial bit is that we keep focused on what we want students to learn and separate this from the vehicle of assessment. If students are learning to write a persuasive essay, they must write a persuasive essay–that is the assessment vehicle that makes sense to show whether or not they have met the standard. But if students are learning about pollution and it’s affects on public health, a persuasive essay might be one vehicle to show that they have a proficient understanding of this standard. What else might show this proficiency? An interview with the teacher? A presentation to the class? A short film? Perhaps the students will come up with their own amazing idea?

So here’s my three-point summary: (subject-to-revision, but pretty-sure-for-now)

  1. If we expect every student to be able to meet the standard, we have to give them true, descriptive feedback. And this goes beyond just saying, “Nice job!” Students need to know what they did well, and what they need to keep working on to meet the standard.
  2. Once they have this sort of actionable feedback, they also need the chance to act on it! Many teachers seem to have a problem with redoing work. My argument is this: if it’s critical that students master this element of the curriculum…we must do everything we can to ensure that they master it! That might mean multiple attempts with descriptive feedback at each step along the way.
  3. We need to provide for (or at least allow for) multiple pathways to showing proficient understanding of the curriculum. Unless the assessment vehicle is the curriculum, allowing for alternatives is key!

What strategies have you put into place in your classroom practice to differentiate instruction? How can we ensure that the fish in our classrooms can climb the trees?

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