Differentiation: An Essential Variable in the Education Equation

One of the essential variables that is missing from the education equation in America is differentiation.

When they begin school, we do not treat each five- or six-year-old boy and girl as unique little people with respect to their characteristics, challenges, and potential. Neither do we adapt the academic standards to which we teach nor the individual lesson plans with which teachers must work to serve each child. Instead, the education process often impedes the ability of teachers to attend to children, individually.

Teachers go to great lengths to help their students negotiate the challenging academic pathway along which all of them are directed but there is only so much they can do, particularly if they teach in schools that are attended by disadvantaged children.

In addition to a host of disparities that exist, their personality impacts the ability of children to form nurturing and enduring relationships with their teachers and the likelihood that they will find their place within the community of students in their classrooms. What kind of social skills do they possess? Is there anything about them that stands out and attracts either the positive or negative attention of their classmates? Are they among that population of children who are the most difficult to love but who need it the most? Children who are different in some obvious way need the help of their teacher to negotiate not only the complex academic pathways but also the social minefields that exist in even Kindergarten classrooms.

Having a sense of belonging can change the course of a child’s entire life. Teachers who are overwhelmed by challenging classrooms will find it difficult if not impossible to attend to the needs of these vulnerable boys and girls. And no, it is not enough that teachers bond with a few of their students.

It is one of the great ironies of the human condition that children think learning is fun until they begin their formal education. It is the first few years of school that will determine how many of these young lives will be lost to society. Make no mistake, the unmotivated and disruptive students we meet in middle school and high school lost their way during their first few years of school, if not their first few months. These are the children with whom teachers were unable to form enduring relationships in Kindergarten and first grade. These are the children who were the hardest to love but who needed it the most.

Somehow, we must shake education leaders and policy makers of education in America with enough force that they see the folly of the learning environments they create for their students and teachers. For every child that we lose in their first few months of school there will be consequences, both for the children and society. There is also an incalculable opportunity cost associated with each child who falls off the conveyor belt that is education in America. The boys and girls who will someday end up in prison, on drugs, or who will suffer early, violent deaths might have had the potential to achieve greatness had we created an education model and learning environment crafted to meet their unique requirements.

How many more young lives can we afford to squander and how long are we willing to let this tragedy to continue? How many teachers are we willing let flee the profession because they are unable to give kids what they need?

When children arrive for their very first day of school, they are at one of the most vulnerable points of their lives. They need to feel safe, loved, and important. These are the things that allow the development of a healthy self-esteem. It is insufficient that teachers strive to identify and respond to the unique needs of each of their students—and indeed they do—the education process and the way teachers, students, and classrooms are organized must be crafted to support that essential variable of a child’s education: differentiation. We are not just teaching children to pass annual competency examinations, we are preparing them to be responsible citizens of a participatory democracy.

What we teach and how we teach it must, also, differentiate with respect to the reality that our children do not all learn the same way and are not all preparing for the same futures. Some will be going on to college, some to vocational schools, others to the military or directly into the work force. In some cases, they are preparing for careers and endeavors that do not exist, today, and that we cannot envision. Our job, as education leaders and teachers is to help them acquire an academic foundation that, as their unique talents and abilities are revealed, will allow them to choose their own destinations; to strike out in any direction.

If we are helping them learn the things they will need to develop their unique potential; to discover their special talents and abilities; to formulate and begin to pursue their dreams for the future; to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy; and to be able to control most of the outcomes in their lives, a healthy self-esteem will prove to be more important than what they know. With a solid academic foundation, a healthy self-esteem, and active imaginations they will be able to learn whatever they need to know.

This tragedy need not continue. We can go back to the drawing board and reinvent the education process to produce the outcomes we seek. This is what I have striven to accomplish in the development of my education model and I urge you to take time to read it, not seeking reasons why it won’t work rather striving to imagine what it would be like to teach in such an environment. My model is available for your review at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

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