Differentiation: An Essential Variable in the Education Equation

One of the essential variables that is missing from the education equation in America is differentiation.

When they begin school, we do not treat each five- or six-year-old boy and girl as unique little people with respect to their characteristics, challenges, and potential. Neither do we adapt the academic standards to which we teach nor the individual lesson plans with which teachers must work to serve each child. Instead, the education process often impedes the ability of teachers to attend to children, individually.

Teachers go to great lengths to help their students negotiate the challenging academic pathway along which all of them are directed but there is only so much they can do, particularly if they teach in schools that are attended by disadvantaged children.

In addition to a host of disparities that exist, their personality impacts the ability of children to form nurturing and enduring relationships with their teachers and the likelihood that they will find their place within the community of students in their classrooms. What kind of social skills do they possess? Is there anything about them that stands out and attracts either the positive or negative attention of their classmates? Are they among that population of children who are the most difficult to love but who need it the most? Children who are different in some obvious way need the help of their teacher to negotiate not only the complex academic pathways but also the social minefields that exist in even Kindergarten classrooms.

Having a sense of belonging can change the course of a child’s entire life. Teachers who are overwhelmed by challenging classrooms will find it difficult if not impossible to attend to the needs of these vulnerable boys and girls. And no, it is not enough that teachers bond with a few of their students.

It is one of the great ironies of the human condition that children think learning is fun until they begin their formal education. It is the first few years of school that will determine how many of these young lives will be lost to society. Make no mistake, the unmotivated and disruptive students we meet in middle school and high school lost their way during their first few years of school, if not their first few months. These are the children with whom teachers were unable to form enduring relationships in Kindergarten and first grade. These are the children who were the hardest to love but who needed it the most.

Somehow, we must shake education leaders and policy makers of education in America with enough force that they see the folly of the learning environments they create for their students and teachers. For every child that we lose in their first few months of school there will be consequences, both for the children and society. There is also an incalculable opportunity cost associated with each child who falls off the conveyor belt that is education in America. The boys and girls who will someday end up in prison, on drugs, or who will suffer early, violent deaths might have had the potential to achieve greatness had we created an education model and learning environment crafted to meet their unique requirements.

How many more young lives can we afford to squander and how long are we willing to let this tragedy to continue? How many teachers are we willing let flee the profession because they are unable to give kids what they need?

When children arrive for their very first day of school, they are at one of the most vulnerable points of their lives. They need to feel safe, loved, and important. These are the things that allow the development of a healthy self-esteem. It is insufficient that teachers strive to identify and respond to the unique needs of each of their students—and indeed they do—the education process and the way teachers, students, and classrooms are organized must be crafted to support that essential variable of a child’s education: differentiation. We are not just teaching children to pass annual competency examinations, we are preparing them to be responsible citizens of a participatory democracy.

What we teach and how we teach it must, also, differentiate with respect to the reality that our children do not all learn the same way and are not all preparing for the same futures. Some will be going on to college, some to vocational schools, others to the military or directly into the work force. In some cases, they are preparing for careers and endeavors that do not exist, today, and that we cannot envision. Our job, as education leaders and teachers is to help them acquire an academic foundation that, as their unique talents and abilities are revealed, will allow them to choose their own destinations; to strike out in any direction.

If we are helping them learn the things they will need to develop their unique potential; to discover their special talents and abilities; to formulate and begin to pursue their dreams for the future; to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy; and to be able to control most of the outcomes in their lives, a healthy self-esteem will prove to be more important than what they know. With a solid academic foundation, a healthy self-esteem, and active imaginations they will be able to learn whatever they need to know.

This tragedy need not continue. We can go back to the drawing board and reinvent the education process to produce the outcomes we seek. This is what I have striven to accomplish in the development of my education model and I urge you to take time to read it, not seeking reasons why it won’t work rather striving to imagine what it would be like to teach in such an environment. My model is available for your review at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

Time: An Essential Variable in the Education Equation

In recent posts we have talked much about the critical role relationships play in learning. Strong, nurturing, enduring relationships between teachers and students is one of the essential variables of the education equation. If parents can be pulled into the relationship as partners, sharing responsibility for the education of their children, the students’ probability of success will soar.

One of the other essential variables in the education equation is time. Not just time by itself, but time and our patient attention. In most school settings; whether public schools, private, parochial, or charter schools; the education process is structured around arbitrary schedules of time. This is not surprising because everything human beings do is done within the context of time. Not all things are meant to be on a predetermined schedule, however.

If you have ever been a part of a child’s life from birth to adulthood, you know that each child is unique and learns at their own pace. The human brain, particularly a child’s brain, is a remarkable thing, possibly the most remarkable thing in all creation. A child’s brain is programmed to learn; it is like a sponge that soaks up the world around it. While science has determined that there is a clear developmental path through which children grow and mature, the variance in rates of childhood development can be great. If your eldest child walks at 12 months and speaks in sentences by 18 months, there is no reason to be concerned when you second child takes a first step at 13 months and says only a few words at one-and-a-half. The only thing that matters is that the important bases are touched and that once a skill is acquired the child can utilize it, effectively.

When children arrive for their first day of school, we see much the same pattern. Some are already reading by that monumental first day but many of their new classmates are not. Some know their letters and numbers, others may know colors and shapes. Where they fall with respect to an academic preparedness continuum is determined by the unique characteristics of their individual lives and genetic capability. Not only do they have varying starting points, some learn more quickly than others and their manner of learning may differ. Just like early childhood development, however, the bottom line is that they all can and will learn. The question is: How can we best help them learn?

Everything else changes beginning on that first day of school. No longer is the pace and direction of a child’s development determined by nature or a child’s interests and talents. Pace and direction are now guided by academic standards that are essentially an arbitrary determination of things educators believe children must learn if they are to enter adulthood with choices. When I suggest that the standards are arbitrary, I am not suggesting they have been poorly researched, rather that there is an underlying assumption that the standards and their accompanying timelines are appropriate for all “non-special needs students.” This assumption has a powerful influence on the academic success and failure of our students.

No longer is learning a natural and fun process that progresses at the child’s own pace. The first change with which children are confronted is that specific learning objectives have been identified and prioritized. The second change is that the specific learning objectives have also been correlated to a schedule that provides guidelines for the pace of learning. The expectation of teachers is that they guide their students down an academic path, as outlined by state standards and at a pace that conforms to what has been determined to be an acceptable rate of progress. Teachers have some latitude to help if the number of students who are getting off to a slow start is small. The larger the population of students who struggle and the older they get, however, the more problematic it becomes for teachers.

To gage how well students have progressed through the outline of academic standards, competency assessments have been developed. It turns out that the performance of students, on these assessments, has been determined to be an effective way to hold schools and teachers accountable for the performance of their students. Therefore, the process has come to be known as high-stakes testing.

The process begins to break down when individual students are unable to keep pace and we can be certain that learning is no longer fun for these children.

As it turns out, the two most essential variables of the education equation; which I have suggested are enduring relationships between teachers and students (not to mention parents) and that children are given however much time and patient attention they need to learn at their unique pace, are difficult to provide within the context of the current education process. The education process is comprised of two essential components. The first are the academic standards and schedules and their accompanying competency assessments; and, the second is the way teachers, classrooms, students, and resources are organized to achieve their purpose.

Think about the current education process as a conveyor belt designed to move kids along the path outlined by academic standards and that the speed with which it moves is an arbitrary schedule intended to correspond to the benchmarks placed along the path. The way we have organized teachers is that they ride along with their students as the conveyor belt moves toward its destination.

When we place a diverse population of children on that belt it appears to work well for many of our students. Other students, however, lack the skills (academic preparedness and pace of learning) that enable them to remain secure in their seats. Gradually, these children begin to fall off the belt and they lack the ability to climb back on, unassisted. Their teachers reach out to them and retrieve as many as they can, while others fall quickly out of reach. The students who have been retrieved still lack the skill necessary to hang on, however, so they fall off again and again.

Never are teachers able to retrieve all students who have fallen behind and the population of children who are failing at school grows, unrelentingly. These young people have fallen off the conveyor belt and they have no where to go other than to be swallowed up by a maelstrom of poverty and failure that plagues our society.

Until we abandon the conveyor belt as obsolete and replace it with an education process that is engineered to meet each child’s unique requirements, students will continue to fail no matter how hard our teachers work; even with innovative and sophisticated tools and methodologies that are being developed.

If, however, we utilize our imaginations, in combination with our education and experience, to design and construct a process around the way children learn, and that empowers both teachers and students, we can help each child receive the best education of which they are capable. A nice bonus will be the discovery that, in the right environment, most of our innovations with which we have been struggling will work.

Once again, I urge you to take time to review my white paper and education model to see one way we can create a teacher/student-centered education process. Please read it not in search of reasons why it will not or cannot work, rather in hope that it might work. The model, which will be available for public school systems to use, free of charge, is available for your review at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ You are also invited to peruse the other 150 plus articles posted on this blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream.