All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


01 August 2011

Differentiation, Again

There's a discussion going on at Joanne's about differentiation again, inspired by this witty little essay about how "differentiation" is the new magic buzzword (cf. "diversity").

I find some sympathy with the article's main points, I actually don't have a problem with the notion of differentiation itself, but I am opposed to it insofar as it is ever going to be practically implemented. (In this way, you might think that my opposition is similar to my opposition to communism, which would be great IF everyone were saints. But they aren't, so...)

I wrote a little while ago about the wide variance in human ability. There, I proposed not just tracking through classes, but opening entirely different kinds of schools to deal with different types of students. Now, obviously that's a resource-intensive solution.

Let's say the budget's strapped, there's no more cash, and you have this wide variety of student ability and only one teacher, one classroom. You're going to have to use "differentiation" -- it's just not practical to have separate classes because you can't afford that many teachers. What are your options?

Let's say you're teaching a geometry class. That's what the schedule says, and that's what you're being paid for. The powers that be have sent you two students, the first (let's call him Johnny) with a 3rd grade math ability, and the second (Timmy) with a 9th grade math ability. They're both in your geometry class.

The teacher has three options, as I see it:

First, the teacher can teach the geometry class to the Timmy, and more or less ignore Johnny, who's not going to understand a damn thing. Timmy will get an A or a B, most likely, and Johnny will just fail. Granted, he shouldn't have been in the class to begin with, but times are hard and this is the classroom that had an open chair.

Second, the teacher can teach a remedial math class. Johnny, if he works hard, will get a B or a C, most likely, and will develop his math abilities perhaps as far as 6th grade math. This is a great outcome for Johnny. Timmy will either get an easy A or an F, depending on whether he decides to revolt in his boredom or not.

Third, the teacher can "differentiate" -- teaching geometry to the Timmy, while running Johnny through a remedial math program. This requires a lot more work from the teacher, but hey -- times are hard and this is the job that's available. And maybe the teacher can pull it off with skill and aplomb. Maybe both the students get A's or B's, or at least C's.

Now the problem: The second and third cases both result in grades being given for a class called "Geometry" that in no way reflect the student's accomplishment in geometry. In the second case, both grades are effectively fraudulent. In the third case, only Johnny's grade is fraudulent.

I'm not a fan of fraud. Frankly, I prefer good, honest robbery. SO what's our solution, given that times are hard and we can't afford more teachers and more classroom space?

I should think it obvious. Have the teacher just teach two classes at once. Put both students in the teacher's classroom at the same time, but enroll the second student in geometry while you enroll the first student in remedial math.

There's no rule that says the classroom has to be the class. The class is just a curriculum, the teacher, and the students following it. There's no reason two different classes can't occupy the same spatio-temporal location.

And if you call the courses what they are, well... you're not committing fraud anymore. And I think that's a good thing.

This is obviously not what I consider an optimal solution. I prefer heavily tracked classrooms and even schools, as I said. But I also admitted above that my preferred solution costs money, and if we aren't going to pay for the best, let's at least do the best we can in the world of the possible.

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