Monday, July 28, 2008

Alice Armstrong: ‘Differentiated instruction’ can’t replace 1-on-1 work

These are the same buzz words that DOE uses – “differentiated instruction” in place of smaller classes; but how can this occur? Isn’t one a precondition for the other?- Leonie Haimson

Alice Armstrong: ‘Differentiated instruction’ can’t replace 1-on-1 work

Posted Jul 28, 2008 @ 12:04 AM

Recently, my friend Julie, a nurse, reflected on her days of working in a chronically understaffed hospital.

“Hospital administrators tried to convince us nurses that we were the problem and that if we just sharpened our organizational skills, we could meet all the patients’ needs,” she said.

“Of course, if two patients went into cardiac arrest at the same time, I couldn’t have saved them both. Fortunately, it never happened. But what if it had? What was I supposed to do?” asked Julie.

“Prioritize. Let one of them die,” her husband quipped.

“Sounds just like education,” I said. “Teachers are frequently told that class size doesn’t matter. Mind you, the people claiming size doesn’t matter aren’t in the classroom.”

“They aren’t tending to patients either,” she noted.

Fortunately, an overcrowded classroom is not likely to result in students’ early demises. It does, however, limit the individual attention kids get. Even the most talented teachers cannot work one-on-one with two kids at once.

No need to worry. The educationists, those ivory-tower scholars who crunch data like kids munch cheese puffs, have come to rescue public education — again — with “differentiated instruction,” among this year’s favorite buzz words.

“To differentiate instruction is to recognize students varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning, interests, and to react responsively. Differentiated instruction is a process to approach teaching and learning for students of differing abilities in the same class. The intent of differentiating instruction is to maximize each student’s growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is, and assisting in the learning process,” writes Tracey Hall, Ph.D.
Easy for Dr. Hall to say. I would like to see her try to execute this teaching technique with 125 high school composition students each day.

Actually, good teachers have been instinctively differentiating instruction, presenting concepts in a variety of ways that appeal to visual, audio and kinesthetic learners for years, long before it became fashionable. These teachers also implement a number of assessment strategies to allow students to capitalize on their strengths.

Still, sometimes nothing can replace a little one-on-one time, particularly in subjective areas such as composition. To teach students to write well, teachers must have their pupils write and write often. Then the teachers must read this writing and bleed all over the paper to explain what worked and what didn’t and why. Doing so takes time, lots of time.

If the average paper requires 10 minutes of grading time and the teacher has 125 students, the instructor needs a whopping 1,250 minutes to grade one set of essays. After investing a chunk of her life in grading these essays, the teacher would like her students to actually read the comments, ponder them and maybe even learn from them. More often than not, however, students look at their grades, wad up their papers and toss them in the garbage.

The teacher would like to cry out, “You just threw away 10 minutes of my life!” Instead, she sighs and tries to erase the vision from her mind’s eye like she erases the chalkboard.

If she had time, she would sit down with each student and go through the paper sentence by sentence making sure her comments were not only read but understood. She could employ such a strategy in a class of 10 or even 15. With 20 or 30 students, however, it is not feasible. She will do the best she can for her students within the confines of her circumstances, but it will never be good enough.

Such is the lot of public school English teachers. No matter how hard they work, no matter how many hours they toil, they always feel like they should be doing more. Guilt comes with the job.

Perhaps what we teachers should do is gather all the money that educationists are spending to study the impact of class size on learning, inject it into the system to reduce class size, have composition students write essays about how to maintain good health so they don’t end up in the hospital with their lives in the hands of overworked nurses, and then work one-on-one with them and teach them to break long-winded, unwieldy sentences into shorter, more effective ones.

Alice Armstrong, a freelance writer and copy editor, taught high school English for 18 years. She can be reached at

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