Updated: Jun 24, 2021
By Beckett Haight
Since first getting into the area of Special Education as a volunteer in the late 90s I have slowly seen the push for inclusion which thankfully has become an idea that is near omnipresent these days. But one key aspect that is developing at a slightly slower pace is the implementation of differentiation practices. What exactly it is, and how it’s achieved in increasingly more inclusive classrooms around the world.
Maybe that could be one reason that politicians seem to quickly jump on the computer science for all or coding proficiency for all initiatives these past few years? They may not see that schools are slowly going towards more student-generated/inquiry-based/project-based, cross-curricular approaches and that classrooms are increasingly being differentiated in many ways.
This is to say that more and more, we have fewer students doing the exact same thing at the same time as others in their class, and sometimes others at their school. Differentiation.
Differentiation is generally seen as teachers planning activities and units of instruction by first taking into account student readiness (i.e., skill levels), student interest, and student learning profiles (i.e., strengths, background, etc.).
From there, we then are able to figure out where we can differentiate the learning by Content, Process, and Product.
Students in the same classroom may have different books at different reading levels for example. Some students may need heterogeneous groupings so they can benefit from their peer’s expertise.
Or one student may build a website, or a robot from scratch as a product of their learning while another makes a poster.
Increasingly schools are going in this direction, and it’s where we all need to go. Instead of 9th grade me loving to read, but having a tough time enjoying A Separate Peace, we are giving students opportunities to show proficiency with learning standards in more engaging ways like being able to choose their own book in a Guided Reading setting.
We do this because the students in our classrooms come from a multitude of backgrounds and skill levels, and often do much better when we differentiate.
In this video, teacher and author Larry Ferlazzo explains that differentiation is not about long nights of planning and grading, but about being flexible and making decisions in the moment based on what your students need.
So that’s one reason why I get a little uneasy when I hear policymakers say every single student should be proficient in coding. Or every student should learn computer programming. Some schools have even let programming skills count as a language requirement because a programming language is sometimes seen as a language.
But one problem I see is, as a special educator and as a case manager, I have continuously worked with students over the years who because of ADHD, Dyslexia, or other specific learning disabilities specifically have trouble with languages and with math. Both significant parts of what this computer science/coding push is composed of. I have even had high schoolers get language requirements waived, or have had to modify the math expectations because of these difficulties.
When I see President Trump’s new computer science initiative, or remember President Obama’s, or hear about Rhode Island’s, I think to myself, we still need to work on getting all our students through Spanish 1, or Algebra 2 before we start a new initiative that teaches skills that may not even be required as Moore’s Law and everything else increases our capacities exponentially every few years! We need to be doing the differentiation and the co-teaching and be using all the inclusion best practices to make sure our students are able to be successful in our current systems before starting initiatives like coding for all.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that learning about computer science or how to code is fantastic. I know that we need people with these skills in our economies, they are exciting career options, and the non-tech skills that students build while going down this tech route will make them highly successful in future academic and professional endeavors. The only thing I contend is that it should not be mandatory.
To illustrate this idea real quick, I had an unusual reaction from one of the students I worked with when we did our Monday morning “Weekend Wrap Up,” and I told them about my TEDx talk. As soon as I was done laying out my thesis to my resource class, I had one student shout out, “Exactly! Nobody else talks about this. Why do I have to take computers!?” Again, I think that it’s great to give the students exposure to things like computer science, and I think a general computer class should be as mandatory as a health class…we should have it. But what hit me so profoundly is that this student who struggled through his computer class (where it was mentioned that they learned how to program for part of it) has dreams of being a real estate developer, and has the personality and acumen to make that happen. I look at this student now as a 14-year-old and know he is going to be running things in the future. And for the tech side of things in his future, the part he doesn’t like, he is going to find someone he trusts and “outsource” that part of the job to make sure the bottom line stays in the black.
This anecdote illustrates why differentiation is so important. We have a student who in some ways is not ‘ready’ for the programming (i.e., struggles in math and science classes), and doesn’t have the interests, and his learning profile doesn’t entirely match up, but he spends a semester there upset with the system.
What if we kept with that push for more cross-curricular work, more student-led projects, more inquiry-based approaches to learning and folded in the computer programming into the core curriculum and let students choose if that is how they want to show their knowledge for example. Technology inclusion. Tech skills not siloed in a computer lab with skills that aren’t always easily generalized to other areas of the school day, but are built into the content, process, or product?
I recently gave a TEDx talk about this theme with the title of, “Teaching Every Student CompSci or How to Code is Not the Answer.” In it, I addressed inclusion only a couple times because the main focus was on the systemic implications of these top-down initiatives. But given my passion for special needs education, I wanted to write this post to express my TEDx viewpoint through the lens of differentiation more clearly.
Beckett Haight is a former student who received special education services for needs that stemmed from my ADHD and ODD. This led to a volunteer job in a classroom for students who were developmentally delayed, which led to being a teacher assistant for four years, which led to the last 12 years of a teaching career that I feel lucky to have. Check out his website called Collections of a Special Educator that has Special Ed resources I have developed over the years and didn’t want just sitting on my computer. You can also find him on Twitter.