Differentiating in Baby Steps, Part 1: Don’t Differentiate Yourself Into Insanity

Have you ever seen this cartoon before?

I have, about two dozen times, and it frustrates me. It’s often the first slide in a presentation on differentiated instruction in the classroom, and while yes, it makes a point, it raises some serious concerns.

If I understand the logic: the goldfish should not be asked to climb a tree. Let her, um… do a modern interpretive swim.

The idea behind differentiated instruction is simple: different students have different abilities and limitations, and rather than expect all students to learn and to work in the same way, we should tailor our teaching, assignments, projects, and assessments to be as inclusive as possible. (For in depth reading on differentiated instruction, check out some books by the guru, Carol Ann Tomlinson. She’s written a book on about every angle you can imagine – from problem based learning to focusing on the humanities.)

Sounds good, right?

I’d like to complain about this cartoon, however, and in doing so, make a couple of points to help new educators step, in a balanced way, down the path of differentiating in their classrooms.

The First Caveat to the Comic: A burned-out teacher who differentiates is worse than a healthy teacher who doesn’t… yet.

The cartoon suggests something which, in the ears of a well-intentioned, eager, beginner educator, can result in disaster: if you don’t differentiate, you might as well be asking a fish to ride a bicycle. Or climb a tree.

This is a problem: while the premise of differentiation is simple, the execution is beyond complex. A teacher can tweak any element of the students’ class experience in numerous ways – from daily work to the final project.

This creates great opportunity! Hooray!

This also can create mental and physical collapse for the beginner educator.

My first two years of teaching, I never knew when enough was enough. Staying up late enough. Familiarizing myself with enough texts. Including enough activities. Designing enough adventures. 2am, in the blue glow of my computer, still dissatisfied with the unit plan, I would shake my fists at the ceiling and yell, “How is a mere mortal to teach?!”

That is not a sustainable model for a career of teaching.

And that was before differentiation came to town.

The Second Caveat to the Comic: Students are cats.

The second caveat to the comic is that a room full of students is generally not a monkey sitting next to a horse sitting next to a goldfish. It’s more like… three different kinds of cats. One is the jumpy cat which zings under a bed when you walk into the room, the second is the cat that won’t get up off your lap even when you stand up, and the third enjoys raking his claws across every cloth surface he can find, including your shins.

Yes, students are unique. Yes, you should take steps, when the time is right, to learn differentiation. Yes, eventually, you will include many forms of differentiation for many types of cat.

But as my most significant teacher mentor once said, “Daniel-san. First learn walk. Then learn fly.”


Then, learn climb tree.

This is part 1 of a 4 part series. Read part 2, here

Growth Mindset — not just for students :)

If you give a man a fish….or in my case, if you attach a file to an email for a colleague, they will never learn to be self sufficient with technology! I have quite a few friendly neighbors who still call me frantically when their printer won’t work, only to have me rush over and plug it in. This is funny the first few times and makes me feel useful, but does it really help anyone? It is hard not to shake my head when this kind of thing happens (which is quite often), but it doesn’t help the problem.

We’ve heard about the digital divide amongst our students, but what about the digital divide between younger and more veteran teachers? And does it matter? I believe it does. A teacher’s attitude toward technology can have a huge impact on student learning, so I made it my mission to be a technology ambassador at my school, and if you’re even remotely tech savvy (if you’re reading this, you are) you should, too.

Here’s Why: Growth Mindset

Hopefully you’ve heard about all of the research by Carol Dweck out of Stanford about Growth Mindset. I so often hear teachers say, “I’m not techie” or “I can’t figure out computers.” What they may not realize, is that they are demonstrating their fixed mindset to their students. An easy change would be for them to say, “I’m still learning how to use computers” or “I haven’t learned how to do this yet, I need help.” But for some reason, this is often a black and white issue for certain people, and they feel they are either good with computers or not. A common trait amongst these naysayers I’ve observed, is the fear of failure. Those of us who are comfortable using technology with our students aren’t afraid of technical difficulties, or appearing not to know something. For some teachers, this is extremely uncomfortable.

Here’s How: Change Attitudes, Encourage Risk Taking

The first thing I did at my school was hold an all inclusive, tech 101 workshop for tech-phobic teachers. Without judgement, I walked them through the basics, from how to turn on the machine, to how to attach a file to an email. Without rolling my eyes, I let them go at their own pace, and ask questions they’ve always been too embarrassed to ask, (like, what is the cloud? And what’s an MP3?). The next step is to ask your colleagues what they would like help with. You’re not going to gain any followers by trying to teach them to code in their first workshop. They may just want to learn how to troubleshoot their classroom technology, so that’s where you should start. After that, you can slowly introduce tools that you think are useful, such Google Drive or ClassDojo, but don’t start with these. Make sure you allow a lot of time for exploration, everyone should have a device in front of them while you demonstrate and you shouldn’t move on until they’ve caught up. Sound familiar? Yes, this is just good teaching! Adult learners differ from kids in many ways, but when it comes to trying something new, we all bring different experiences to the table. We all need time and room to fail.