In the K-12 world, there is a great deal of focus on differentiation of instruction. Teacher education programs are grappling with ways to support the diverse needs of their students, understanding that what makes perfect sense to one, may be baffling to another. This expectation is the essence of moving from teacher/content centered to student/learning centered education.
Now this is no small task. Already charged with knowing something about everything (just look at an elementary education program and you’ll see what I mean), the teacher must also be comfortable enough with the material to present it in many different ways. Take, for example, my own children. One of them seemed to have been born with an intuitive knowledge of phonetics. One small explanation of how they work and it was clear Alex would master reading quickly. Michael, not so much. Phonetics made no sense until many years after he had begun to read. Reading came to Michael at a different pace and different strategies were needed. It was also important to ignore arbitrary deadlines about what Michael should do when. That’s just two folks. Think of figuring that out for 15-30 students.
But this differentiation isn’t just needed in K-12. We need to grapple with what it means in higher ed.
We’ve made some adjustments in terms of students who may have some gaps in their reading and math skills. At WCSU we have what we call P courses. These are courses are assigned an extra credit hour and in-class tutoring to help students meet the learning outcomes. The structure acknowledges that students who do not place into Writing 101 or Math 110 can reach a the outcomes expected in those courses if we adjust our teaching strategies.
Now, the extra credit buys the time, but it also directs our attention to the way we organize curriculum. The co-requisite or embedded remediation approach encourages us to think about filling in particular gaps in knowledge instead of requiring a one-size fits all preparatory course. In the case of writing, that might mean the student just needs some help with a particular grammatical construct (often true for the many students at WCSU for whom English is not a first language). In the case of math, it may be that a few foundational pieces of algebra need to be reviewed, instead of an entire course. This is helping our students not get stuck in the remediation loop, never progressing to their college curriculum. It also honors what they do know, instead of designing entire courses as if they know nothing at all.
This targeted (perhaps adaptive) learning offers a good start to a conversation about differentiated instruction. But it is important not to think that computer generated adaptations are all that is needed. I recall my own experience of taking statistics. I enrolled in an online course to add the skills that statistical research can give to my qualitative inquiry repertoire. I was an adult with a PhD. I knew how to take courses and how to study. I passed college math a long time before that so I was probably rusty on some fundamentals, but I thought I could learn as I went along.
Unfortunately, this online course had no interaction in it. There was a book, a set of exercises, several exams and that was all. Well, there was a concept that eluded me. I needed a different approach, an alternate explanation, a new way of looking at the concept. I got none of this, just instruction to re-read the passage in the text and try the exercises again. This is the pedagogical equivalent of speaking louder and more slowly to a person who doesn’t speak your language. Some instructional differentiation was in order and it needed to be from someone who could hear what was troubling me so that the adaptation was more targeted to me. I passed the class, but I never understood the concept.
Math may be the most advanced discipline in terms of developing adaptive tools to support differentiated paths through a curriculum. Unfortunately, the tools are frequently seen as a substitute for the human interaction that the professor brings. Leaving students alone with the tools is likely to leave them passing a course but not necessarily understanding the material. We need to be looking at these tools together with the instruction. Yes, modify the questions for the level of the student, but also modify the interactions between student and teacher.
What I’m trying to say is that it is time to be truly learner-centered, modifying and adjusting our explanations and exercises until we meet the needs of everyone in the room. Instead of arguing about the importance of the credit hour, we should be arguing about how to best achieve relative mastery of a concept and then think about the time necessary to do it. Instead of arguing about competencies, we should be looking more closely at what we need to do to move students from foundational skills to higher order thinking and what practice they need to get to that point. Instead of trying to determine what “regular and substantive interaction between students and faculty” should be, we should by trying to imagine how to create enough freedom in our scheduling and curricular constructs for students and faculty to rely on each other as needed. And yes, we need to discuss outcomes, but those outcome should not be kept at the foundational skill level. They must contain a true understanding that comes from the holistic experience of education.
In other words, as we engage with the higher education landscape and the perceived threats to academic integrity, we should not get distracted with what was, but instead plan for what should be. It is clear to me that the faculty-student relationship is still at the heart of this enterprise. But it is also clear that the way in which learning unfolds has to shift. This is hard work, and it will require us to re-imagine all that we do at the university. Like our K-12 counterparts, we’re going to have to think about systematic differentiation of instruction. But just think how satisfying it will be to know that we’ve done that hard thinking and we’re finding new ways to teach the students we have, not the ones we imagine.