Why Differentiated Instruction as a Special Topics Course?

This spring I will be teaching a special topics course in Millersville University’s graduate program in art education on the topic of Differentiated Instruction. Faculty can propose special topics courses, and here is my rationale for proposing this most recent one:

Differentiated Instruction, or “DI,” has been a part of education scholarship for a very long time. Educators for the past century have understood that one of the foundational challenges to teaching is the diversities (in all senses) present within and among the students that make up classrooms. In the late 1990s, Carol Tomlinson’s work (which had previously advocated for teachers to use Howard Gardner’s ideas of multiple intelligences and brain-based research to better reach both gifted and struggling students) began to use the term differentiation, which she described as the process of “ensuring that what a student learns, how he or she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he or she has learned is a match for that student’s readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning.” Tomlinson’s work met the field at a time when school leaders across the United States were struggling with how best to meed the needs of their student bodies, which were of increasing ethnic, racial, learning, and social diversities. The growing DI literature, and with strong support and endorsements from Education Leadership organizations such as ASCD, quickly became the topic of many required professional development sessions and district initiatives. As a result, DI joined other acronyms like AYP, NCLB, and IEP that reflected both formal and informal policies that significantly influenced what teachers were expected to do.
I would posit that the felt need for teachers to offer differentiated instruction to students is magnified in the current, overly-standardized educational climate. Differentiated instruction, and it’s relative popularity among administrators as something they desire of their teachers, gives me hope that education leaders haven’t completely lost all good sense about teaching and learning. Of course one size/method/process/product/environment doesn’t work for all students. Unfortunately, the rest of the system is build on an industrial model that may pose serious barriers for differentiation. My current view is that differentiation is possible, but might be very difficult work for over-burdened teachers especially because it runs counter-intuitive to the very system in which teachers are being asked to teach. As one teacher friend recent asked me, “We’re expected to differentiate in our classrooms full of diverse students, but then we are told all students need to take the same test, at the same time, in the same amount of time, and get the same (proficient) score. What sense does that make?”

So why this course? In short, it seems like the right time given the convergence of a few factors. First, Davis Publications recently added Differentiated Instruction in Art to their Art Education in Practice Series. I use this series often in my art education courses and have respect for many other books in this series. If they add a new book to this series, it’s worth the read, in my opinion. Second, the author of this book, Dr. Heather Fountain, is someone whom I’ve worked with and respect greatly. If she is writing about the topic, I can assure you it’s because she has the best interests of students and teachers in mind. Third, it is showing up in local district’s strategic plans. District’s intentional focus and provision for professional development on DI demonstrates a continued interest and need for conversations about the needs of learners. As a result, I expect this graduate course to be a dynamic and energetic gathering of art teachers who want to think critically about DI and what it means in broad educational contexts as well as in their classroom contexts. 
I bring a number of questions to this course and look forward to adding my students’ questions about differentiation to our exploration. So far, my list of wonderings includes: Why differentiate? Differentiate how? What are the relationships/tensions between differentiation and standardization? What did constituted differentiated instruction before Tomlinson and Fountain’s work? What relationships/tensions exist between assessment and differentiation?