This article is a follow up to a previous article about examples of “differentiation” in textbooks. We’re going to look at some bad patterns or (to use a more precise term) “anti-patterns“.
What’s An Anti-Pattern?
An anti-pattern is like a decoy. A false pattern. Something people mistake for a positive solution, yet it has a major flaw, plus a much better solution already exists.
Crash diets are perfect examples of anti-patterns: they pop up all the time and gain popularity even though they are inherently harmful and we already have a well-known, real solution: eat balanced meals and exercise regularly.
Anti-Patterns in Differentiation
I’ve noted several common differentiation anti-patterns for gifted students in textbooks and classrooms. I’ll call these:
- Read a book.
- Help another student.
- Do more problems.
- Discuss in a group.
- Use more colors.
1. Read A Book
One of my 6th graders was new to our gifted program. When I met her dad, he mentioned: “She doesn’t read as many books at school now.” Sorta worried, I asked what he meant. “In the old school, she’d read by herself all the time. Now she actually has work to do!”
Ah! This student had been subjected to the “Read A Book” anti-pattern from Kindergarten through 5th grade! In this anti-pattern, when a student finishes work quickly, the teacher tells them to go read a book! There is no instruction, no challenging questions, no opportunity to discuss with the teacher, and (frankly) no learning — other than what the child teaches themselves.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with reading a book, but reading by yourself is not differentiated instruction. You can read a book by yourself in bed at home, floating in a pool, or laying in a park. We should expect more from school than recreational reading.
Rather than independently reading until the period ends, students should participate in a task or lesson purposefully structured; one with a clear learning goal that makes sense for that student.
2. Help Another Student
Oh boy. First, many gifted students struggle mightily when asked to explain their thinking. Their thought process is non-linear with all kinds of intuitive, unexpected jumps in logic. Most people do not think like them (that’s why they’re in a gifted program!). Thus most people do not understand their thinking — and they’re unlikely to be good at teaching.
Gifted students are not classroom tutors. They probably aren’t good at it nor do they want to do it.
There’s a reason athletic superstars rarely become great coaches — and superstar coaches were rarely the best athletes. A kid who finishes quickly often “gets it” in the same way that Michael Jordan “gets” basketball. Neither are necessarily going to be good at teaching it. Nor should they need to be! You do not need to be able to teach something in order to understand it. Teaching is a skill unto itself.
Secondly (and gosh this should be obvious), teaching students is the teacher’s job, not the students’. If you took an evening cooking class and ended up teaching the other students, you’d probably ask for your money back. Each student deserves a task or lesson that is meaningfully challenging to them.
Caveat: yes, some kids really like helping other students. Of course, if they love to teach, come up with a way to empower them. But don’t confuse this with differentiated instruction. The vast majority of the day, these kids should be learning at a level that is appropriate to them, not tutoring their peers.
3. Do More Problems
Lisa Van Gemert calls this “more-firentiation” rather than differentiation. It happens when a student finishes quicker than expected and, as
a punishment “differentiation,” gets more of the same: another worksheet to complete, another book to read, more problems to finish.
“Challenge Workbooks” are an especially nasty hive for this anti-pattern. Since these workbooks are labeled “Challenge” or “Enrichment,” one might (naturally) assume that they’re filled with challenging and enriching work. They are not. They’re more worksheets.
Sure, there might be a slight twist or it might “look cute” (finish the worksheet and you uncover the secret word :barf:), but the actual thinking and content are exactly the same as the original worksheet – the student just has to do more!
Kids who already get it should do less, not more. Move them onto something new faster, not slower.
4. Discuss In A Group
I see this one a lot in Language Arts teaching manuals under the “Advanced Learner” section. While the rest of the class works on one task, the advanced students get into a group and have an unsupervised discussion.
Group discussions are very difficult to manage – even for adults. How do you share your idea safely? How do you criticize appropriately? How do you stay engaged? How do you balance the workload across the group? The idea that we can toss kids into a group and expect them to automatically work at a high level is a true anti-pattern.
If we’re going to do group work, a teacher needs to be present to raise the thinking, to ask interesting questions, to handle the group dynamics. Groups need structure and planning. They are not a shortcut to higher-levels of thinking.
5. Use More Colors
Alternate title: do it again, but neater.
When a student finishes quickly, one anti-pattern is to note that it is sloppy and ask them to re-do it. Or to go back and add more colors. Or to do it again, but this time in ink. There’s an emphasis on surface-level decoration.
More colors are not differentiation. I once heard a teacher say that there was differentiation in her assignment because the student made her graphic organizer “look like a tree.” Nope.
We have to distinguish decoration from differentiation.
Just because students are doing different things doesn’t mean there’s differentiated instruction.
If my class reads about Saturn and then I let them create either a poem, a presentation, or a skit, there is no differentiated instruction happening. Some students are just making a different product. My advanced group didn’t learn any additional content, they didn’t think at a higher level, and they didn’t access more advanced resources. We only gave them a choice about their final product. That isn’t differentiation.
If I give students the choice to learn about Jupiter, Neptune, or Saturn, I’m still not differentiating!
If most of my class is learning the basic facts about Saturn using our textbook, I’m going to purposefully plan a task to push my higher-ability students. This means adjusting thinking skill, content, and resources before I worry about the product.
- Perhaps they’ll compare and contrast with another ringed planet and then form an opinion about which is most useful to humans (this is content and thinking skill).
- They’ll reference a more advanced book about the planets that I grabbed from the library (that’s a resource).
- Then, I’ll consider their product. Yes, perhaps they’ll have a choice there, but that product choice isn’t where the real differentiation happens.
Anti-Patterns Seem Right
Anti-patterns are insidious because they “seem right” on the surface due to their popularity. Asking kids to read a book when they’re finished is so pervasive that it seems natural. But is it the best use of that child’s limited time with a teacher?
When we differentiate, it needs to be about students’ thinking. For me, a great test is: does this challenge the student to the point that they need a little help. This means we’re finally entering that child’s zone of proximal development (ZPD), and a lot of gifted students rarely get to spend time there.
None of these anti-patterns push students into their ZPD.
To truly differentiate, we have four levers: increase thinking skills, adjust the level of content, provide sufficiently interesting resources, and design an appropriate product that shows off students’ learning.
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