Differentiation in the classroom – the idea of having choice within assignments and adapted assignments for different student levels — tends to get a hard knock from the older generation. In my first year teaching last year, I was introduced to this concept, and admittedly, I found it new, different and slightly hippie-seeming. After all, I also grew up doing the assignment as it was given and memorizing my butt off for the tests. But I have had the chance to learn more about differentiation and especially about the changing dynamics in the student population over the last half-century, and I can say now that differentiation may seem new agey–but really, it’s very good for students and fits the reality of the set of learners we have in the classroom today.
The group of kids filling desks in 2018 is not the same group that filled Catholic schools in the 1970s. One huge change was legislation mandating that all children receive free, public, appropriate education. In 1975, this came to include children with special needs as well under the IDEA law, which created the modern IEP process for kids in any form of special education. So, in days past, kids who didn’t sit still and listen well, simply wouldn’t have been in most schools, certainly not in private schools where they could easily be kicked out. Today, all kids are in school, public and private–for different reasons, and that creates a new reality within the classroom.
Before, rote lessons and whole class instruction went over just fine. Today, those methods don’t get much of a foothold. Maybe we can blame it on increased screen time, more distracted kids, spoiled kids. Those probably all do play a factor, but I wonder–were those really better methods? Granted, I believe in memorization–that a solid grounding in math facts or spellings must be the foundation of more advanced skills. But that doesn’t mean lessons and methods can’t also be more interesting and include more choices for the student.
From my point of view as a teacher, creating a solid differentiated lesson is more effort intensive. But when I do it right, it has gone over so much better than me trying to stand in front of the room and talk. Overall, what goes on today looks a good deal different than when I was a student, but I do think it’s mostly good (nothing is perfect), and it is actually desirable to adapt lessons to different student interests and abilities. While there is a time to sit and memorize, Mary Poppins said it best with “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!”
Rambling on now to connect to another social issue: the homeless and high rates of incarceration in America. In my special education class, we learned about how in the early 20th century people with intellectual disabilities, what used be called “retarded”, were often cared for in state or privately run institutions or “schools” where they lived and never left, much like those with severe mental illnesses. Then, in the 1960s and 70s, a number of abuses were exposed, notably at Willowbrook School in New York, and these institutions gradually closed, and the family re-emerged as the center of care for those with such disabilities or mental illnesses.
A few things followed: these young people became part of the school-aged population, now part of our student population with needs that must be addressed, creating another change in the dynamics of the student population. Second, as adults, especially if the family couldn’t provide high-cost care, many of these people became the modern homeless and often those who are incarcerated. This isn’t to say that all/most people in jail have disabilities, but that in the cases of people with disabilities, many ended up in jail for petty crimes in such a way that modern prisons almost serve as institutions.
I found this a fascinating revelation; it means that today’s homeless population and high incarceration rates are more complicated than first meets the eye. It means that there is more to it than: “Jim just needs a job” or “Too many people are in prison.” That’s not even to mention the contribution of drug abuse issues to both problems. It means that neither with institutions nor with today’s methods of helping the homeless or imprisoned have we found an adequate way to address the needs of people with intellectual disabilities.
As I turn this over in my mind, the homeless, incarcerated and drug-addicted social ills of our society seem to call out much more strongly than other hot-button issues today–such as those related to sexuality. A compassionate approach from a compassionate population is needed; and this is something it seems easy for all of us to work together on: finding ways to help these people and integrate them better into society.