Differentiated Instruction is an Unproven Fad

Canada, Education, Michael Zwaagstra, Publications

Walk into a public school classroom and you will likely see differentiated instruction in action. Some of its hallmarks include flexible grouping arrangements, problem-based learning, and learning style inventories. In fact, differentiated instruction is one of the most widely promoted education methodologies in North America.

However, the claims made by differentiated instruction advocates deserve close scrutiny. Differentiated instruction rests on the premise that all students have an individual learning style (visual, verbal, or tactile-kinesthetic), and learn best when new concepts are introduced through their preferred style. While many educators accept learning styles theory as gospel, research has not turned up any evidence to support this theory.

For example, a peer-reviewed analysis of the research literature on learning styles by psychologists Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork published in the December 2008 edition of Psychological Science in the Public Interest concluded “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice.” John Hattie of the Melbourne Education Research Institute firmly dismisses the identification of learning styles as a “modern fad” and “one of the more fruitless pursuits” in his 2012 book, Visible Learning for Teachers.

Catherine Scott, a senior research fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research, agrees there is no evidence that students need to learn according to their individual learning styles. Not only is the learning styles theory useless in the classroom, argues Scott in the April 2010 edition of the Australian Journal of Education, it is actually harmful because it causes teachers incorrectly to label students and prevents them from using more effective teaching methodologies

Despite the lack of evidence for this fundamental premise behind differentiated instruction, advocates still claim it works. The back covers of many of the most prominent books about differentiated instruction contain glowing descriptions about how it will revolutionize classroom instruction.

However, while some individual teachers may support differentiated instruction, empirical evidence of its effectiveness is limited. Bryan Goodwin of the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning states in his 2010 report, Changing the Odds for Student Success What Matters Most, that there is a “dearth of evidence supporting differentiated instruction” and that “[t]he extent to which teachers differentiate instruction in their classrooms is not a key variable in student success.” If this is the case, it makes little sense to make this approach the focus of school reform.

Fortunately, there is a path to improved student achievement that doesn’t involve a significant amount of money or a complete overhaul of the structure of public education. In his 2011 book, Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, former school administrator Mike Schmoker outlines three research-based components that form the key to effective instruction; a reasonably coherent curriculum, sound lessons using direct instruction, and purposeful reading and writing in every discipline.

The real harm of differentiated instruction comes from how it undermines each of these three essential components of effective teaching. For example, advocates of differentiated instruction usually downplay the importance of content and suggest that the process of learning is more important than what is learned. By making a content-rich curriculum optional, differentiated instruction deprives students of the knowledge base they need to be successful learners.

Differentiated instruction also undermines teachers who wish to give sound lessons using direct instruction. When teachers are expected to teach multiple lessons on each topic and encouraged to let students work at learning centres of their own choosing, students lose out on focused whole-class instruction. This makes it less likely they will acquire the knowledge and skills they need.

Finally, by labeling students as visual, auditory, or tactile-kinesthetic learners, differentiated instruction makes it easy for students to avoid doing regular close reading of complex text that would help them become better readers and writers in the long run. All students, regardless of their so-called learning style, need to spend focused time reading and writing. Differentiated instruction undermines this by encouraging students to focus only on things that match their preferred style of learning.

Unfortunately, the field of education has a well-deserved reputation of being too quick to adopt the latest educational fad. This needs to change. A careful examination of education methodologies such as differentiated instruction would be a good place to start.