Sunday, October 2, 2011


Earlier this week, Emily and Elizabeth visited our public library for story time. While I have not had the opportunity to attend, it has been described to me as songs, stories, and a free sharing of and playing with toys. At this most recent visit, Elizabeth climbed onto the lap of another mother who was holding her 10 month old daughter (Elizabeth is 11 months old). Seeing Elizabeth infringe upon her territory, this little girl quipped, "Uh oh!"

As Emily related to me this episode as well as other words spoken by this prodigy, I responded like any parent- why can't my daughter, 30 days this girl's elder, talk with clarity? What are we not doing? Reading to her enough? Speaking to her and not just about her? Doing things for her instead of teaching her and/or letting her figure it out herself? Luckily, my feelings of concern quickly fleeted. The educator in me rationalized with my inner-parent: every child progresses at different paces.

This story time-mate can use interjection in appropriate contexts but may not yet be able to stand, wave or make a complete mess of her bedroom by unshelving and opening every book she owns. Everyone is inherently different. Thank God for that! All created in His image and likeness, we were also created as unique and special persons. As such, we all have varying gifts, talents, weaknesses and shortcomings. Thank God for that, too!

With this in mind, the dynamics of having 20-30 individuals, each with their own unique gifts and talents, in the same classroom presents various challenges to meeting the needs of all of those individuals within that classroom. Known in education as differentiated instruction, teachers are charged with meeting each student where they are and helping them to progress. It starts by shifting to a student-centered classroom (as opposed to the traditional teacher-centered ones). From there, delivering the content so that it makes sense to and has meaning for students trumps teaching in the method, style or pace most suited for the teacher. Covering material is out the window in differentiated instruction. Sitting in its place is student learning. Student learning, not teacher teaching, should be the focus of any classroom trying to do more than just educate those students in the middle of the ability spectrum within a classroom.

As one would imagine, differentiating instruction successfully is extremely difficult. Most teachers aim for the middle of the famous "bell curve", figuring this strategy and pacing will allow them to educate a good percentage of students. This is hardly blameworthy. A majority of students get a best fit education. Meteorologists cannot boast a higher success rate. Major League Baseball players make millions of dollars if they can be productive at a much lower rate.

But, when it comes to education, specifically Catholic education, a majority isn't good enough. The top tiered students will become bored. The lower end frustrated. Both extremes disillusioned.

Bottom line: unacceptable.

Catholic social teaching promotes the dignity of all persons. As Catholics we respect and honor human life from conception to its natural end. Jesus challenges us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal those who are hurting. Go and make disciples of all the nations. Jesus even gives us the parable about the vineyard workers getting hired at different times but receiving the same wage (Mt. 20:1-16a). Fair doesn't mean equal. Every student in our classrooms deserves our time, attention, talent and love.

A staple in special education classrooms, differentiated instruction involves open ended assignments, tailoring instruction to meet the specific needs of all students, allowing different groups of students within the same classroom to be at slightly different stages, and even activating multiple intelligences. Luckily, general and even Catholic education classrooms have taken to this approach. Educators have come to realize that this is just good teaching because it promotes good learning. The student becomes the focus and the center of the educational effort. The teacher employs different strategies to reach each student. Instead of students adapting to a teacher's style, teachers differentiate to meet the varying needs of each and every student.

Good teachers will get a majority of the students in their classroom to succeed. Outstanding teachers will design ways to engage the highest and lowest performing students as well.

The difference is something that makes a world of difference, especially to the kids on either end of the spectrum: differentiated instruction.