As educators, we are expected to meet students where they are and then lift them to higher ground. Unfortunately, many public school teachers continue to use a one-size-fits-all approach to classroom instruction. When teachers juggle too many preps, extracurricular activities, and student numbers, they have little time to prepare engaging lesson plans, much less have the time to differentiate those lessons. Our teachers deserve this time because each student matters. Incorporating differentiation into instruction can improve the academic experience for all of our students.
We have all received a one-size-fits-all t-shirt, maybe at a blood drive or a fun run. How many of us have quickly retired that shirt to the bottom of a drawer? We might wear it when washing the car or mowing the lawn. We consider ourselves lucky if this shirt can even be worn in public. Unfortunately, our students are also lucky if they succeed with a teacher who has a one-size-fits-all approach to classroom instruction.
The typical class demographics consist of students of different ages, genders, socioeconomic statuses, and capabilities. One student may seem destined for Harvard and another student may seem destined to drop out. They may come from different cultures; they may speak different languages. These students may have different interests, learning styles, and readiness levels.
Advocates such as Carol Tomlinson tout the benefits of differentiation as student growth and motivation as well as efficiency in instruction. It makes sense. It makes so much sense that most teachers differentiate intuitively. When students needed extra time to complete a test, these teachers took those one-size-fits-all t-shirts and let out the seam. When students pointed and said la camiseta or manga corta, these teachers nodded and then took a sharpie and wrote t-shirt across the front of those shirts.
What is better than intuition? Not much. If anything, it is intention. If we take the time to understand our audience and adapt our message, our medium, and our product, we have better results. This is not only true of the classroom; it’s true in the business world, too. Effective marketers never target everyone with the same message; they can’t afford it. They specialize. They study demographics and psychographics in order to find and capitalize on niche markets.
If we apply this mindset to our classrooms, because we are, in effect, marketing ourselves and our content to an audience, we realize that first we must develop an understanding of our audience. We need to study interest inventories, learning style results, and test data. We need to take into consideration all of the other variables. We need to incorporate flexible grouping; as a matter of fact, we just need to be flexible… because each class—each student— is different.
This approach takes time. No one is asking every teacher to differentiate every lesson for each student every day. It is a continual work in progress. Maybe you will focus on one unit this year. Maybe you will focus on hands-on learners this year. Maybe you will focus on meeting the needs of your special education students this year. Maybe you will focus on your independent learners this year. Maybe you will focus on various strategies to tackle nonfiction text.
The point is to remember that no one ever walks into a department store in search of a one-size-fits-all t-shirt.