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.