Differentiated Instruction & the Flipped Classroom

A good teacher often anticipates difficult patches in learning and structure lessons accordingly. In the best case scenario, the amount of time devoted to course materials commensurate with the difficulty level.

My years of teaching have given me plenty of insights as to what particular assignment or exercise would cause the most headache. Still, if I have to convey anything to a new teacher, it is that the difficulty level of any given material cannot be “hard-coded” (to borrow from computer jargon): What is hard for one person may barely require any thought in another.

“Differentiated instruction”, therefore, has a great appeal. It holds great promise for teaching according to individuals’ intellectual ability. In the hands of well-trained teachers, differentiated instruction helps mitigate some of the issues our schools face, with large class sizes and wide range of preparedness among students.

I have been a fan of differentiated instruction, until now.

Having taken a few self-paced online programming classes (CodecademyCoursera, EdX, Flatiron) and observed how my fellow students – adults from different parts of the country (sometimes different parts of the world) – navigate different lessons along the way, I have come to see a fundamental fallacy in differentiated instruction.

The success of differentiated instruction is premised on various pre-conditions, including teacher training and institutional support – both should be there before implementation.

The onus of the task is entirely on the teacher, who must, in addition to identifying individual needs, devise plans to address such (often wide-ranging) needs.

In a traditional instructional environment, there is no way anyone, however, brilliant, can teach a class on such a massive scale as someone on MOOCS, such as Dr. Chuck Severance (University of Michigan) on Coursera. Even with MOOCS usual high attrition rate, “Programming for Everyone” had at least 50,000+ students completing the course. Yet, even a newbie like me, with no background in programming, was able to learn a huge amount, complete the course, and thoroughly enjoy it at the same time.

That is because, in the online learning environment, each learner must figure out her own way of grasping the course material – turning differentiated instruction on its head, making the process “differentiated learning” instead.genie_lamp-21st

There is your “flipped classroom” in flesh and blood!