Why Differentiate in Class if We Don’t Differentiate in the Real World?

At an event the other day with a group of teachers I had just met, one made the offhand comment that the real world doesn’t differentiate. Her opinion was met with general agreement by the other teachers.

The undertone of her comment was that we’re setting students up by modifying our instruction to allow for their individual differences. After being accommodated throughout their education, how will students survive the “quiet desperation” of their “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives?”

So, maybe we shouldn’t differentiate, because whereas students may learn more when we do, they’ll be weaker adults for having been so obliged.

Driving home from the event, I realized my new acquaintance was just plain wrong, and it takes only a few examples prove that point:

  • The tax code and government entitlements differentiate depending on multiple factors in a person’s life – how much they make, their health, their marital and family status, home ownership, and so forth.
  • Sporting leagues differentiate through categories based on ability, gender, size, and age. Most states have divisions for interscholastic competitions based on school population. I have friends who race and compete well in their age bracket but wouldn’t stand a chance without the differentiation. What are the minor leagues if not differentiation?
  • How many accomplished professionals pay gratitude to a seasoned veteran who “showed them the ropes” or to a structured mentoring or apprentice program, that amount to differentiation?
  • Don’t golfers use handicaps to make the game more competitive?
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act seeks to ensure that people with disabilities have complete access to the public arena.
  • Many cities have High Occupancy Vehicle lanes for carpoolers.

So in fact, we differentiate all the time all over the place. Sometimes our motives for differentiation are generous, sometimes selfish, sometimes mean. But no matter its motivation, society is awash with differentiation.

So what does that suggest for education? Maybe we should infuse more differentiation and not limit it to instructional practices. Teachers ask the question on Facebook all the time: If we’re expected to differentiate our teaching why do we give standardized test? Career paths should be differentiated by endowing (and compensating) teachers not just for years, education, and added duties like sponsoring clubs but also for roles that include mentoring, delivering professional development, research, and administration, to mention just four. Teachers could be evaluated an a differentiated scale based on their experience and assignment, with higher expectations placed on more accomplished teachers.

Of course most of this is happening somewhere, but only in bits and pieces and not systematically with comprehensive forethought.

I doubt I’ll see the colleagues I met at the event again, but if I did, I think I’d bring up differentiation in the real world one more time.



Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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