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Differentiated instruction? Libraries invented it

Differentiated instruction (sometimes referred to as differentiated learning) involves providing students with different avenues to acquiring content; to processing, constructing, or making sense of ideas; and to developing teaching materials so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability. Wikipedia

When I was school librarian back when the earth was still cooling, teachers on a pretty regular basis would send kids to library with little notes. The notes usually read something like, "Mildred* has finished the story in the reading series. Can you find something more for her to read?" or "Can you find Philbert some materials on doing an astonomy project?"

Phil's and Mil's teachers were "differentiating instruction" even before the term was invented. Most teachers I knew and worked with tried to find suitable materials and activities for all kids, but especially those on the very high and low end of the ability spectrum. And where were those materials?  In the school library's deliberately built collections of books on a wide range of reading abilities and on a wide range of topics.

Today we have lots of test data about individual students in schools (which has yet to be proven more accurate than gut instinct/observation of experienced teachers) that can be used to match resources with abilities. And someday diagnostic software may expedite and broaden the teacher's ability to match every child with specific online resources.

But until then, the library is ready, willing and able to help with both print and online materials and expertise.


* In all the years I've taught, I don't remember ever having students name Phibert or Mildred.

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Reader Comments (6)

Today as I visit in a library in my district I am reminded of how librarians play a role in differentiated learning every few minutes of every school day. One group of students has finished their state testing early today and they are working on a project. Another group of students came to work on their class project, another few came in for books. The librarian did not even stop to think, my room has five groups working on differentiated projects RIGHT NOW. This happens everyday in this school district. Librarians are experts at finding just the right resources for age appropriate and reading level appropriate resources whether in books or online. And to think budget cuts might affect this fabulous group of teachers who are already well trained in differentiated teaching.

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMardy McGaw

Thanks, Mardy, Really nice to hear this from a teacher!


March 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I don't hold forth a lot of hope for the "diagnostic software". Only people understand people. Case in point.... Our English Department reviewed their assigned readings recently, checking the lexile levels. You can imagine their amazement to discover that Hamlet is written on an elementary school level. Hmmmm.....

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJacquie Henry

Hi Jacquie,

And I would not want software making a decision about my health either. But I do think they can be tools to help humans make INFORMED decisions!


March 29, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Doug, I couldn't agree more. What I find most puzzling is that teachers have been working one-on-one with students since time began to meet the learning needs of individuals as well as to ensure success for the entire class. When did trust in teacher expertise begin to erode and when did we start relying so much on test results, which are only ONE measure of learning? Most people will tell you it was NCLB.

I'm not saying that using testing to measure progress is a bad idea, but it should be considered as just one measurement of student performance during a defined spectrum of time. Standardized testing is not designed to assess the whole student any more than it should be used as a measurement for the whole school.

March 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary

Hi Mary,

I think the reason people like tests is that you can just boil down a bunch sometimes ambiguous "stuff" to a single number or two. It's neat, efficient, and easy to compare.

We are all so talented in different ways - it's a pity "objective" testing has such power right now.

I told our legislative committee at school about my proposal: No child should be expected to pass a test that those mandating it can't get a passing score on. Nobody thought I'd get very far.


March 29, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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