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Article 4 on the idea of streaming in education, focusing on one key alternative to streaming: differentiated instruction or learning.

While this article is taken from an American perspective, the ideas are global in nature, and discussed amongst educators from a broad range of countries. Both streaming and differentiated instruction proceed from the same basic (and probably obvious) observation: that students are different. While streaming attempts to resolve this by placing students into classes according to their (general academic) ability, differentiated instruction sees it as the role of the classroom teacher to provide multiple levels and types of lessons within the same class to cater to the different abilities and preferences of the more diverse students in a system without streaming.

The article looks at the purported benefits of differentiated instruction, but points out the difficulty of implementing it. It also goes on to point out that the practice should not be confused with academic programmes which seek to accelerate or drill students for higher-level academic performance.

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Differentiated Instruction: Easier in Theory than in Practice

Since the beginning of the deleveling debate, whenever a parent expressed worry regarding how teachers would manage to teach students of enormous skill difference in one class the Administration has had an answer: “Differentiated Instruction.”  Whenever a parent has questioned the effectiveness of one-sized-fits-all the Administration has had an answer: “Differentiated Instruction.”  Whenever someone has worried about a child falling behind their classmates or waiting for them to catch up the Administration has employed the mantra: “Differentiated Instruction.”

It’s often said that “Differentiated Instruction” is a new term for an old idea.  Teachers in the one-room schoolhouses of yore – where six-year olds and sixteen-year olds learned together – surely had to differentiate their instruction.  Now, in the past twenty-five years as we have become more sensitive to the unique individual needs in a student population of unprecedented diversity, attempting to differentiate instruction within classes – even leveled ones – has become a nationally used educational method.

Why?  The idea behind Differentiated Instruction is beautiful: instead of teachers teaching to the mean of the whole class, teachers “meet children where they are,” and teach all children based on their individual pre-existing skills or learning styles.  It’s a theory that holds promise for low-achievers who need more structure and basics and for high-achievers, who need that push and enrichment to reach deeper conceptual knowledge.  The concept itself is so attractive that it’s hard to imagine anyone disagreeing with it.  In fact, despite the criticisms of Differentiated Instruction that are about to come, I still support it as one of the many tools schools should use to reach students.  In elementary schools where leveling is philosophically unpalatable, I think Differentiated Instruction is more than good, it is absolutely necessary as the best method we have of educating students of varying readiness.

My critique is that Differentiated Instruction is no substitute for upward-pushing leveled classes.  Even in the writings of Differentiated Instruction main theorists it is not supposed to be a stand-in for in-class leveling.  In practice Differentiated Instruction is so time consuming for teachers that they often are unable to do it.  My belief is that there is no either/or between differentiation and leveling and using the two in combination is ideal for that ideal “thorough and efficient” education.

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