Sunday, April 18, 2010

Confusing Differentiation with Belief

A fellow school teacher, Julie Obradovic posted an interesting article over at the Age of Autism. She compares the educational practice of differentiation to help meet individual needs, to what she presents as the one-size-fits-all practices in medicine. I think this is a great comparison, if one’s goal is to move away from science based medicine and towards a far looser interpretation of evidence in medicine. I am not convinced this is a good thing at all.

Differentiation is a buzzword in the educational world right now. Differentiation is also part of the triad that makes up current zeitgeist in US education. Along with evidence based practice; the idea that we should be able to substantiate and make hard decisions based on collected data i.e. (testing data or other sources). And Response-to-intervention (RTI) a philosophy of using various interventions, pre-referral to special education and/or a replacement to the discrepancy model for determining if students meet criteria for Learning Disability.

With these facts I mind let’s take an in depth look at the post.

“In one class, for example, I may have to address 15 different things in just one aspect of one lesson. Suzie can't hear well out of her right ear so I have to make sure to stand where she can. Johnny doesn't do well without paper and pencil tasks, so I have to make sure to modify whatever we're doing to meet his needs. Peter is visually sensitive to print on stark white paper so I have to make sure I used colored paper when making copies.”
“I could go on with one hundred more modifications.”

No doubt she could, this is part of what it means to be a teacher. Some researchers suggest that we make 130 or more decisions an hour when directly providing instruction. However, the examples given here are simply accommodations; this is only one type of differentiation.

“As a parent, I strive every day to treat my student's academic needs as I would want my children's to be treated. And I know that the overwhelming majority of my colleagues do the same.”

When we talk about simple accommodations and the Gardnerian tailoring of lesson to meet multiple learning styles then we usually get good acceptance. When we begin to talk about modifying according to product for the exceptional (in any regard) child or differentiating by grouping in such a way that effects our pet classroom formatting, then in my experience teacher buy-in tends to decline. Let’s not present the broad concept of differentiation as overwhelmingly beloved and accepted… because it is not.

“We don't necessarily have to differentiate our student’s instruction. We do it because it's best for them, in spite of the fact that it is time consuming and inconvenient to do so.”

“Necessarily” being the key word. As Julie herself notes, we are required to do some modifications/accommodations via Section 504 plans or IEPs. As for other reasons we differentiate… I am all for recognizing teacher nobility, but not at the expense of creating a dichotomy between caring, concerned teachers, and square-peg-filing medical professionals. Especially, since this is a false dichotomy.

“Same content. Same outcome. Different methods of getting there.”

That’s not the totality of differentiation. Rather we should be saying….Sometimes different content… sometimes different outcomes…. Often different methods. I think Julie is limiting the concept of differentiation so as to be convenient to her point.

“When we advocate for safer vaccines and safer vaccine schedules, isn't all we are asking of our physicians is to have our children be treated as individuals?”

Look at what Julie just wrote, she is asking specific questions, not broad philosophical ones. She is trying to equate her specific beliefs with ideals that I suspect few professionals have an issue with. The problem isn’t the broad concept the problems are specific science based issues dressed up as a broad and noble ideals.

“I can't imagine in this day and age presenting my student's parents with a syllabus and saying this is what we cover, this is the only way I do it, and there will be absolutely no exceptions to this regardless of how your child is doing.”

Sweeping generalization, I feel no need to defend against what is obviously untrue.

“Alternative help is a waste of money.”

Maybe, maybe-not, if advocates or such can present well conducted research that demonstrates an effect, maybe it is worth our consideration. So, can they?

“It sounds funny when put in an educational context, but that's precisely what is happening in the pediatric one.”

Only if you strawman the situation in way that actually represents neither.

"It's their JOB to identify susceptibilities to heavy metals and other vaccine ingredients.”

So, it’s their job to substantiate an alternate hypothesis you happen to believe? This has nothing to do with differentiation, it is belief based medicine.

“It's their job to work with you and listen to you. It's their job to make sure your child is healthy and thriving and meeting their milestones, and it's their job to figure out why they aren't...with REAL, CONCRETE, MEASURABLE EVIDENCE from which to draw their conclusion.”

1) It is indeed medical professional’s job to listen to you; it is not their job to substantiate what you believe.

2) If there are hard data that support some alternative beliefs in autism, then where are they?

3) Drawing a conclusion as to what exactly? There are no hard guidelines…. there are no genuine standards as to how we differentiate. Some of the gurus of differentiation admit as much. I have heard them talk about “artful practice” and “exercising professional judgment”. Julie is using some of the popular terms, but only to the extent that they are convienent.

Here is what Julie leaves us with:

1 A mish-mash of various education concepts

2 A misrepresentation of the concept of differentiation

3 An appeal that this misrepresentation be applied to the medical field

4 An ultimate argument of belief based medicine

I’ll keep my differentiation in my classroom thank you.