This 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“.
Examples of Anti-Patterns
An anti-pattern is something people perceived as a positive solution, despite it having major flaws, plus a much better solution should already exist. So, to have an anti-patern we need:
- a popular idea
- which actually has negative consequences
- despite a better solution already existing
Crash diets are a perfect examples of anti-patterns: they pop up all the time and gain popularity, even though they are inherently unhealthy and we already have a well-known, real solution: eat balanced meals and exercise daily.
Taking away recess for overactive behavior is an anti-pattern: it’s common in classrooms despite negative consequences (we’re removing the child’s chance to get energy out) plus many real solutions already exist (sit on a balance ball!).
Anti-Patterns in Differentiation
When I see examples of differentiation for gifted students in textbooks and in classrooms I note several anti-patterns. I’ll call these:
- Read a book.
- Help another student.
- Do more problems.
- Discuss in a group.
- Use more colors.
Read A Book
For one of my students, 6th grade was her first year in our elementary gifted program. When I met her dad, he said: “She doesn’t read as many books at school now.” 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.
That’s not differentiated instruction.
No, there’s nothing wrong with reading a book, but all students must receive meaningful instruction and work on appropriately interesting tasks at school. 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 differentiation 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 the student.
Help Another Student
Oh boy. First, many gifted students struggle mightily when asked to explain their thinking. Their thinking 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.
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 coaches (and great coaches were rarely superstar atheletes). A kid who finishes quickly probably “got 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!
Secondly, teaching students is the teacher’s job, not the students’. If you took a 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: 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.
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Do More Problems
Lisa Van Gemert calls this “more-firentiation” rather than differentiation. It happens when a student finishes quicker than expected and 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. But they are typically just more of the same.
Sure, there might be a slight twist or it might “look cute” (finish the worksheet and you find a secret word :barf:), but the actual thinking is exactly the same as the original worksheet – the student just has to do more!
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 – 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? 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.
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 some more colors. Or to do it again 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 Jenny made her graphic organizer look like a tree. We have to distinguish decoration from differentiation.
Anti-Patterns Seem Right
Anti-patterns are insidious because they “seem right” 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?
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, and a lot of gifted students rarely get to spend time there.