Differentiation: Does It Work?

In January 2015, Jim Delisle and Carol Ann Tomlinson debated in the print pages of Education Week and online whether differentiation is an effective teaching method. Their Commentaries sparked more than 100 responses from readers, both supporting and opposing the practice.

  1. First, what is differentiation, and how did the concept evolve over time? Amid the debate between Delisle and Tomlinson, Education Week published a primer on differentiation, providing a window into the teaching method.
  2. On Jan. 6, 2015, Education Week published Jim Delisle's Commentary, "Differentiation Doesn't Work." He argued that, although differentiation looks good on the surface, it cannot be implemented in diverse classroom settings. Calling the teaching method a "boondoggle of massive proportions," Delisle said teachers either aren't practicing it or don't want to.
  3. Readers reacted and so did Jim Delisle.
  4. Commenters chimed in:
  5. "Maybe the title should be more like 'Differentiation Doesn't Always Work' or 'Differentiation Doesn't Work the Way We Want it To' or something like that because I don't think that DI is total trash -- it's just way hard to implement in the vision that it has been presented."Rbogacz
  6. "Teachers are already overburdened, and having to plan multiple lessons to meet all the different needs is asking an awful lot. That said, I am deeply concerned about the idea of segregating students by 'ability.'"Drabarb
  7. "I think that most thoughtful people would agree that the concepts behind true differentiated instruction and the similar ideas (e.g., personalized learning,individualized learning, etc.) are excellent, but implementing them in the context teachers, students, and even administrators are given is next to impossible."Pburdette
  8. Then, giftedone said: "Surprised Carol Tomlinson has not commented..."
  9. A week later, Tomlinson rebutted Delisle's Commentary in a piece titled "Differentiation Does, in Fact, Work." Based on her experience, she wrote that teachers (including her) differentiate instruction successfully. And students shouldn't be grouped by ability. "I absolutely understand that differentiating instruction well is not easy. But then, I've never felt that teaching should be easy," she said.
  10. Jim didn't flee the conversation.
  11. "I do think Mr. Delisle has a point in that differentiating everything in a classroom is hard, if not impossible. However, it's a big jump to say that differentiation, in entirety doesn't work."treyatl
  12. "The reason we are stuck on differentiation as an instructional model is because we are stuck on an age-grade structure instead of mastery based structure. If students were placed in instructional groups based on mastery of curriculum, then students would have an instructional system that is responsive to their individual strengths and weaknesses."Brianna
  13. Some related the article to their professional or personal experience.
  14. "In the overall outlook, life is tough after high school and both elementary and secondary teachers are preparing students for the role of living in the real world. And that world is not made up of 'one size fits all' settings."mntngal100
  15. "Based on the progress my son made once I got him out of the [Special Day Class] I can confirm Dr. Tomlinson is 100% correct, that placing a kid among high achievers and giving them access to what those high achievers get to access, as well as all the positive messaging that comes with it, makes all the difference in the world not only in terms of outcomes but in holding high expectations." CA Deb
  16. On the same day the primer appeared online – Jan. 28, 2015 – an anonymous educator posed the following question to Education Week Teacher blogger Larry Ferlazzo:
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