The Classical Adjustment to “Differentiation”

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One of the buzzwords for a while now in education theory is “differentiation.” This is the concept that some students in your classroom will learn differently than others, and by assessing their learning styles and needs, you can customize the instruction they receive by grouping students together with similar needs. This was the subject of a recent conference presentation. But the 20th-Century theory of differentiation is not compatible with the classical model used at Columbia Lutheran School.

As defined above, differentiation describes what happens by necessity in a mixed-grade classroom. Teachers who have only one grade in the room strive to differentiate their instruction, because this is recognized as a strength of teaching. But when teaching multiple grades, a teacher must always differentiate to succeed. In fact, a student in one grade may participate in learning with students of a different grade, depending upon the needs of the students in a certain subject.

This sounds like CLS, but the theory behind differentiation as it is commonly taught and implemented today runs contrary to a basic premise of classical education. Quoting from “Differentiated Instruction” by Amy Benjamin (1951),

The theory that guides differentiation is constructivism: the belief that learning happens when the learner makes meaning out of information. That may sound too self-evident to deserve mention. Of course, learning involves making meaning out of information. What else would learning involve? Well, if you’ve ever seen a kid memorize definitions for a list of “vocabulary words” without having the slightest idea of, nor any intention of learning, how to use those words in context, then you know what learning is not: We do not know the meaning of a word, the significance of a historical event, or the applications of a math process just because we have memorized a set of words. (Emphasis original)

Ms. Benjamin has hit upon something here, but is still off the mark, as far as classical education goes. While it’s true that memorization alone is not always the same thing as learning, it’s just as true that thorough learning doesn’t happen without memorization.

The basic problem is the philosophy of constructivism: the notion that meaning or knowledge is a human construct. This is part of a philosophy called Postmodernism, which claims that there is no objective, external truth that exists on its own. But the Bible reveals objective knowledge that God communicates to us, so Classical Christian education begins with the assumption that we have objective truths to teach, and that it’s the student’s job to learn their meaning from the teacher, not create a new meaning for himself. There are external truths in places other than the Bible too, like principles of mathmatics: arithmetic, algebra, geometry, etc.

Constructivism claims that meaning is created by learners as they absorb information. That is supposed to be the learning process, under a Postmodern philosophy. David Thompson describes the claims of constructivism in his 2010 book, What In the World Is Going On?:

Truth and knowledge are not prior realities that exist apart from man; society constructs them, invents them. This is relativism at the group level, whether that group be a nation, culture, or subculture. So for example, one group, the Christian church, constructed the truth that God is triune, that Jesus is God, that he rose from the dead, and so on. Another societal group, humanists, constructed the truth that man is the measure of all things. Evolutionary scientists constructed knowledge about the descent of man, the age of the universe, and the big bang theory. Religious groups invented certain truths giving priests privileges. The culture of heterosexuals constructed the truth that only their lifestyle is legitimate, while the subculture of homosexuals developed an opposing truth. A group of greedy Americans took the lead in constructing capitalism. Children are taught in schools to construct rather than to learn or discover existing knowledge and truth. And on it goes.

Classical schools typically teach mastery of a subject through a progression tuned to the natural aptitudes of children. Very young children thrive on repetition and memorization, so they begin learning all subjects that way from the start. Once they have mastered this grammar level of knowledge, they revisit all of it systematically, learning the relationships between the things they have learned. This is often called the logic of each subject. The final stage, especially for language-oriented learning, is the ability to apply the grammar and logic of a subject in a beautiful, appropriate, and persuasive way. This is the rhetoric of the subject. But subjects are not isolated either, so that a student fully trained in rhetoric will be able to articulate multiple disciplines like history, science, math, and music in an integrated way.

Classical instruction continues from there, but already one can see that there is a basic assumption: knowledge and meaning are objective and universal. Like they said on the television show The X Files: “the truth is out there.” It’s not “in your own mind, however you want to construct it.”

At Columbia Lutheran School, we seek to differentiate our instruction as the needs of students may require, though we seek to teach meaning rather than have the students construct it. One of the tools at our disposal is frequent, adaptive testing that covers multiple basic disciplines on a large, stable scale of performance. Testing up to four times each year allows our teachers to engage in formative assessment, and adjust their differentiated instruction in the most beneficial ways.

1 Comment

Rob Olson

Jan 1, 2019, 8:15 am Reply

This was a thoughtful and helpful essay. Thank you.

Rob Olson
Hillsdale, Michigan

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