Remember the years you spent as a student.

Remember fresh new school supplies on the first day, the school cafeteria, the playground at recess, lockers and school buses.

Remember more than a decade of teachers and classrooms with chalkboards, whiteboards, overhead projectors, desks, textbooks and bulletin boards.

In more than 2000 days as a student, do you also remember thinking any of the following thoughts, whether in 2nd grade, middle school, or high school?

  • The teacher is going too fast and I can’t keep up!
  • The teacher is sooo slow and I am completely bored.
  • Why are we switching topics?   This is actually interesting and I want to learn more.
  • I already know this stuff, why can’t I do something else?
  • Why do we have to give a speech?  I would rather make a poster.
  • Why do we have to write a paper?  I would rather give a speech.

These are the frustrations that Educators hope to eliminate through Differentiated Instruction, which is defined by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) as

“instruction that seeks to maximize each student’s growth by meeting each student where she is and helping the student to progress. In practice, it involves offering several different learning experiences in response to students’ varied needs. Learning activities and materials may be varied by difficulty to challenge students at different readiness levels, by topic in response to students’ interests, and by students’ preferred ways of learning or expressing themselves.”

Sounds pretty good doesn’t it?  Students learning at their own pace, being challenged but not overwhelmed or bored, following their interests and showcasing their learning in speeches, posters, or papers as they choose.   The chances are good that you have already experienced some of traditional education’s attempts at differentiation.

The most common examples of differentiation in traditional schools are ability grouping within classrooms or between classes.  Ability grouping continues to be a controversial approach, but odds are good you experienced it without realizing.  In elementary schools, teachers may divide a class into smaller groups of advanced, average, and remedial students for specific instructional topics such as reading or mathematics.  Often these groups have cute names to belie the inherent judgment of ability, but students quickly figure out who are “good” readers and who are “slow” readers.

Tracking is a more obvious practice as it creates entire classes of advanced, average, or remedial students.  Perhaps you remember being a freshman, junior, or senior in a geometry classroom full of sophomores, knowing you were seen by your classmates and teacher as extra clever or less than clever.  You may also have experienced or observed “pull outs” for special education or gifted and talented classes.  In a “pull out”, students leave their classmates and for specialized instruction with specialized teachers.

Consider the definition of differentiated instruction again; perhaps one can make an argument that ability grouping offers several different learning experiences in response to students’ varied needs, and that learning activities and materials may be varied by difficulty to challenge students at different readiness levels, but it would be difficult to argue that topics vary in response to students’ interests, and by students’ preferred ways of learning or expressing themselves.

Why is it so difficult for traditional education to differentiate?

Traditional education depends on teachers to instruct students and deliver content.  Remember the lectures, assignments, and teacher guided activities from your classes.  All of these require a high level of teacher involvement.  Traditional education curriculum is scheduled on the premise that a single teacher will deliver a set content to a group of children on a set timetable.  Even when there is a more independent project such as a research paper or speech, these are the exception and not the rule.

Imagine a class with 30 students.  How can a single teacher, each and every day, provide individual instruction to all 30 children that is tailored to meet their specific needs and interests with just the right amount of challenge and some choice in how to learn?  It can’t be done.  Teachers are already stretched far too thin trying to create group lesson plans and grade homework, imagine if their work was increased 30 times over.

Dr. Maria Montessori discovered a brilliant and elegant solution to the challenge of meeting every child’s needs.  She created, tested, and refined the through observation auto-didactic (self-teaching) materials to convey particular knowledge to children.  Today’s Montessori teachers rely on the same materials and do very little direct instruction.

One example of auto-didactic materials is the bells, each of the 16 bells produces one of the 8 notes of the diatonic scale when struck, yet appear completely identical.  8 of the bells have wooden bases and 8 have white painted bases, and each note has a wooden bell and a white bell.   Following a presentation from a teacher on the proper use of the bells, children are free to choose to work with the bells anytime.  Young children begin by refining their ability to hear and differentiate musical pitches, then to sequence notes in ascending or descending order, then the names of pitches, and eventually to reading and writing simple songs.

The auto-didactic materials free the child from requiring a teacher to receive instruction and practice.  A musically gifted child in a Montessori classroom is able to proceed through the sequence of activities with the bells very quickly, only needing a teacher periodically to demonstrate the next step.  Meanwhile, a less musically inclined child is free to practice each step until they are confident enough for the next, without a teacher being forced to hurry the child along to “stay with the class”.

Children have an ever expanding set of materials so they can choose to practice something familiar are challenge themselves, providing hours of self-directed learning.  This allows the teacher to observe and to move from child to child presenting new materials as needed.

Although Montessori teachers rarely gather all 30 children together to instruct a single skill, they don’t sit around drinking tea all morning.  Teachers have many roles, the most important of which is embedded in the above definition of differentiated instruction.

“instruction that seeks to maximize each student’s growth by meeting each student where she is and helping the student to progress. In practice, it involves offering several different learning experiences in response to students’ varied needs. “

Dr. Montessori understood the need for an individualized learning experience in her first classroom in 1906 and her approach continues to be an elegant and effective model of differentiated instruction for theorists of today.

Ed Stanford holds a Primary diploma from the Association Montessori Internationale and a Masters of Education (M.Ed) in Montessori from Loyola University.  Ed currently lives in New Zealand with his amazing wife, Emily.