Sorry…Differentiation Still Doesn’t Work

Jim's head shotby Jim Delisle

OK…I admit it: over the years, some of my writing about gifted kids and how to educate them has raised a ruckus or two. When I argued that gifted kids needed to be educated with others who are at least as capable as they are, I was called elitist. When I lambasted the talent-laden definition of giftedness adopted by the National Association for Gifted Children in 2010, I was told that our field would fade away unless we aligned ourselves with regular education initiatives. But nothing I have ever written ignited such passion as my Education Week article, “Differentiation doesn’t work,” published in January, 2015. In the first two weeks after its appearance, more than 500,000 folks had read it and it went viral on websites both within and outside of the gifted child education community. Of those 500,000+ readers, I think about half of them wrote to me (OK…slight exaggeration here) and the majority of respondents were, well, not especially complimentary. I was called just about every negative adjective found in Webster’s Dictionary: naïve, racist, small-minded and misinformed. One writer even called me a Eugenicist, linking me to the foes of yesteryear who wanted to sterilize any people not considered smart enough to raise kids themselves.

To my critics, then and now, I have one message: as much as you’d like to believe otherwise, differentiation still doesn’t work.

The field of gifted child education has always been a contentious one, the single area of special education deemed expendable, not essential, in the eyes of many. “Smart kids will take care of themselves,” I’ve heard more times than I care to remember, “let’s spend our money on kids who really need it.” Really? Kids who really need it? How about gifted kids like these?:

  • The five-year old kindergartener who reads chapter books at home but is relegated to simple picture books at school
  • The third grader who is forced to be a tutor for a classmate who has difficulty learning because, “to whom much is given, much is expected back.”
  • The sixth grader who weaves stories filled with metaphor and nuance and is criticized by her teacher for adding “too many unnecessary details to a simple  writing project.”
  • The 15 year old who is told that his high emotions and in-depth understanding of the frailty of the human condition make him difficult to be around. “Why can’t you just chill out once in a while?” he hears from classmates and adults
  • The 17 year old who has ambitions to become a carpenter or poet or video game designer and is told those career options aren’t “gifted enough” to hold value.

Gifted kids’ intellectual, academic, social and emotional needs are just as vibrant as those of any other special needs student, yet they often get dismissed by people who assume what a cakewalk it is to be smart. Even their parents are subject to criticism: “Oh, how lucky you are to have a gifted child! I feel bad for parents who have kids with problems…” And teachers of gifted kids? Ask one of them how many colleagues assume they have the easiest job in the school, because teaching gifted kids can’t possibly be difficult.

Which brings me back to differentiation and why it doesn’t work. When we lump all kinds of kids with all levels of abilities into one classroom and expect one teacher to meet the needs of every student through differentiation, the kids who get the shortest end of the shortest stick are the smart ones, because the myths about their learning needs continue to prevail. Only when kids are grouped in classrooms by their readiness to learn will something as complex as differentiation have a chance of being successful. This is as true for kids who struggle to learn as it is for those who excel at it, for when you are surrounded by others whose abilities approximate your own–whether these abilities be low, average or advanced–the opportunity to learn alongside these intellectual peers is enhanced, not repressed.

I know, I know, I’ll now be criticized for wanting to segregate kids on the basis of their abilities. That’s a criticism I welcome. To be sure, there are issues about the low-level of instruction in some classrooms where kids struggle to learn, and I also understand that the steps we need to take to locate gifted kids with disabilities (yes, they exist) and gifted kids of color or from poverty need to be improved greatly so that our gifted classrooms don’t resemble a middle-class “white kids only” club. To be sure, these issues are important, but we can address them simultaneously while reconfiguring our nation’s classrooms so that they are more homogeneously than heterogeneously grouped. In doing so, we will validate the specific learning needs of like-minded students, and we will enhance the teacher’s ability to differentiate within this narrower band of student aptitude and expressed academic abilities. 

“Differentiation doesn’t work” continues to be my mantra. But differentiation can work if we are honest enough to admit that we need to reconfigure our classrooms so that the range of student abilities is manageable. Almost by definition, teachers want to do what is best for their students. We can help them do so by bringing back common sense to how kids get “deployed” in our nation’s classrooms.  Limit the range, enhance the learning–for all students.

Jim Delisle has worked with gifted children, and those who work on their behalf,  for almost 40 years.  He is the author of 19 books, including the recently-released, Dumbing Down America (Prufrock Press)

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