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On Differentiation, Direct Instruction, and More: A Decade Later

FOcus
Recently I was contacted by a teacher who had come across a now-decade old blog post I wrote about education author Mike Schmoker and his (hostile) take on differentiated instruction. I argued that, as much as I admired Schmoker's work, I thought he was making a bit of a straw man argument against differentiation. This teacher was curious if I had any more recent thoughts on this topic because his school had recently been through a long spell of exploring "personalized learning" and I got the impression that they weren't entirely satisfied because now they were studying Schmoker's (still classic) book Focus, which argues against bells and whistles and for a much more standardized (perhaps traditional) approach to instruction. Here's my response: 

Great to hear from you and I'm glad folks in the trenches are continuing to wrestle with these important issues.
 
I must admit that I have not followed Schmoker's work in recent years, or Tomlinson's for that matter. My gut instinct is still that their ideas really are in creative tension rather than opposition, but to the extent that they do represent different emphases, my money is still very much with Schmoker
 
And I'm more confident than I was in 2012 that you can't do it all. Schools must prioritize their "focus" and choose what to emphasize. I'm increasingly convinced that the focus for most schools needs to be on creating a strong, coherent, content-rich curriculum and then ensuring fidelity to that curriculum through administrative oversight and support. Then there must be a relentless focus on effective instruction to deliver that curriculum. Only when those pieces are in place can schools begin to meaningfully work on assessment (which they should). 
 
However, I'm much less confident than I used to be that schools can formatively assess short-term student learning in ways that can validly inform a lot of personalized instructional follow up. My thinking on this has been strongly informed by the work of England-based educator David Didau and his book What If Everything You Thought You Knew About Education Was Wrong? (See my review of his book here). Within that review, also see my references to books by Daisy Christodoulou and E.D. Hirsch, which seem to speak strongly to this topic of what should be our highest education priorities.
Bottom line: I think most talk of differentiation (and especially personalized learning) is a distraction for many schools, which have far greater fish to fry in terms of curriculum and instruction. Differentiation has never been practical for most classrooms and may not even be that beneficial. Education, like all human endeavors, involves limited resources of time, talent, and materials. We need to invest in the strategies that have the biggest impact for the vast majority of students. 
 
In most cases, that's likely to involve direct instruction of rich content by content-expert teachers.
 
Then I shared with him a couple of Twitter/X threads I have posted in recent months that even better summarize my current thinking, which I've reproduced below. The first is from August 18:
 
Earlier this week I quoted an article arguing that classrooms should feature more “lecture” and less “facilitation” on the part of teachers. The article (or the quote at least) provoked a big reaction, both positive and negative. It should go without saying that lecture, done poorly, is ineffective, and that more “student-centered” activities can sometimes work quite well for some students. But a general shift in emphasis toward more teacher-led classrooms is in order for two reasons.
 
The first is philosophical: much of the vacuous mess that makes up “contemporary” instructional strategies is the dross of assumptions about learning, the purpose of education, and of human nature left by Dewey & the “Progressives,” assumptions that can and should be challenged. The second is pragmatic: we should give primacy to instructional strategies that work best for most students when deployed by most teachers in most classrooms. That’s going to often be teacher-led learning centered on a rich, rigorous, established curriculum.
 
Of course there is room and need for variety in terms what this looks like in practice. But we need to throw out many if not most of the assumptions in which most teachers of the last generation have been trained.
 
Dear teacher, you are NOT a “guide on the side.” You better be a content expert ready to impart a comprehensive body of knowledge, skills, and cultural values that is not a personal assemblage of your favorite subjects and ideologies. You are a public servant forming children according to the knowledge and virtues that represent your state and local community’s vision for a life of adult flourishing. That requires you to be firmly in charge of the learning in your classroom. And yes, often it will mean a well-crafted lecture, demonstration, or modeled example is the centerpiece of most lessons. Don’t be shy about that and don’t ever apologize. Be the “sage on the stage.” Your students deserve it.
 
A few days later, I followed up with this thread:
 
More on why we need teachers to intentionally think of themselves as “sage” rather than “guide.” Relevant question: when *should* the teacher be a guide? 
 
There’s definitely a point in the learning journey when the sage becomes a guide. This happens at the highest levels of student learning after the mastery of a large body of knowledge and the practice of skill under the careful tutelage of the master. Examples: when I work w/ a doc student on their dissertation, when a HS composition teacher edits a student thesis, when a teacher steps aside so that well-read students can do Socratic seminar, and when the master electrician watches his apprentice wire a house for real people.
 
The problem is that we’ve been led to believe these are normal, everyday learning experiences that would apply to all students of all developmental levels rather than the culmination of months and years of didactic learning from the direct instruction of an expert. 
 
The ancients understood this when they organized the Trivium - the ascending ladder of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. First comes content knowledge, then understanding and skill for organizing that knowledge, and finally the skill to express it to others, including in novel ways. Contemporary education lost sight of this learning structure and pressures students and teachers to skip directly to application and synthesis without the hard work of mastering the underlying basics, or to jump around willy-nilly as if novice-level students were already masters. Therefore a thoughtful shift toward a more traditional (pre-Progressive) understanding of knowledge, learning, human nature, and the purpose of education itself, seems in order.
 
Looking at what I wrote 11 years ago compared with my more recent thoughts, I can see how my own understanding about high-quality instruction has matured while still revolving around a core set of principles, the chief of which is that schools can't do it all, and must prioritize their efforts on tried and true strategies that work for most students. It's a bit discouraging to think of how little progress most schools have made in this regard, but when I also consider the (re)emergence of classical education over this same time period and the recent achievements of many reformers around content knowledge, curriculum improvement, and science-based reading instruction, I'm encouraged for the future. 
 
Somebody email me in another 10 years and let's see where we're at.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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