“I Believe We Can Be Better.”

How many books about differentiation can Carol Ann Tomlinson write. Here is a list:

  • The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of all Learners (1999)
  • Leadership for Differentiating Schools and Classrooms
  • How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-ability Classrooms (2001)
  • Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom (2004)
  • Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for Differentiated Curriculum (grades K-5/5-9)
    Tomlinson, C.& Edison, C. (2003)
  • Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for Differentiated Curriculum (grades K-5/5-9)
    Tomlinson, C.& Edison, C. (2003)
  • Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design: Connecting Contents and Kid
  • The Differentiated School: Making Revolutionary Changes in Teaching and Learning (2008)

Well – she’s got a new one out called: Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom. At first I rolled my eyes and thought seriously, another one?

Differentiation continues to be a big buzz word in education these days and truly, you can go back to the title of her first book and see that differentiation is simply ‘responding to the needs of all learners.’ Those needs are going to vary a lot among students and change from year to year. Being able to adapt to your students’ learning needs is the essence of differentiation. Those of use who realize this, get it. Now what more could she possibly add. But then I opened the book and read the preface which began with this quote:

Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.  – Louisa May Alcott

For some reason, that resonated with me. It had “Growth Mindset” written all over it. The author then began to tell a story. An autobiographical account of her epiphanies (many which she didn’t even realize until much later in her career) regarding differentiated instruction. Some she realized on the spot. “… I understood at that moment that an effective teacher is not someone who just teaches content. He or she is someone who teaches content to human beings, and the classroom has to work in such a way that each individual in it has a legitimate opportunity to grow as much as possible from his or her starting point.” Classroom management is not about keeping kids in their seats but about giving good directions, providing an engaging curriculum, and adapting to individual and group needs. She ends the preface by saying that the book is an aspirational guide. “We have no illusions that any teacher — even the best among us — reads a book and emerges with radiclly different teaching style in tow. We do believe, however, that there are many teachers who aspire to grow as professionals every day.” And that was just in the preface.

Then, in chapter one she calls on classroom teachers to be leaders for change, and she says in order “to achieve such a level of leadership we must

  • Work from and aspire to an objective that is an improvement over the status quo.
  • Articulate this vision so that those who are asked to follow have a compelling reason to do so.
  • Move knowledgeably toward this vision while simultaneously attending to the voices and needs of those who will necessarily help enact it.
  • Be patient with and supportive of followers, yet impatient with artificial barriers to progress (I was so glad to see this as this describes me quite well – I thought my impatience with those barriers was a flaw. Woo Hoo! Carol Anne Tomlinson says it’s ok to be impatient with certain things).
  • Maintain a pace that consistently ensures visible progress without pushing the system beyond it’s capacity to change. (Well here’s where I could learn something – As a wise colleague once said to me, “It’s a marathon and you can’t sprint the entire race.”)
  • Monitor outcomes of the change and be willing to adapt, when necessary to achieve desirable outcomes and eliminate undesirable outcomes.

The rest of the book helps define what differentiation really is, uses it as a philosophy, clears up many misunderstandings about differentiation, discusses how to be a more reflective teacher, and how to begin that journey.  The second half of the book focuses on the mechanics of managing an effective differentiated classroom. There are some excellent ideas posed. She then ends by responding to almost every possible resistance in order to go on this journey.

Perahaps that earlier quote resonated with me because earlier I was reading the president’s speech regarding the recent tragedy in Tucson. His words were simpler, but echoed the earlier quote of Louisa May Alcott. He said, “I believe we can be better.”

Maybe Carol Ann Tomlinson did have more to add on differentiation. Teachers can learn to differentiate well, adapt to the needs of their students, and continue to grow.