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How Differentiated Instruction Misses the Point

by Eric Spears - January 11, 2013

Well-meant attempts to differentiate education are akin to prison reform; they are helpful for people stuck in prison, but the assumptions underlying the basic structure of prison are not addressed. To compassionately meet the needs of all children, we must do away with the idea of grade levels, not just work in different ways to mold children to pre-determined grade levels.

The groundbreaking developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky described a zone of proximal development where children can learn best (Vygotsky, 1978). It is a place between that which is too easy and that which is too hard; a productive space where the guidance of a person more competent in a task can help a learner to reach his or her potential. The most effective teachers work to create these zones to meet the learning needs of individual students.

The zone of Proximal Development is going to be at different places in different subjects for different students at different times in their lives. This presents an insurmountable challenge for our entire educational system, which is predicated on a false belief that the individuality of students is a problem to work with to bring them to an identical grade level. In fact, every student is where she or he should be in order to grow to her or his next level of understanding. It’s not like trying to construct identical bicycles out of parts that differ, in some sort of assembly line with a rigid time frame delineated by grade levels.

Beyond the conceit of developmentally ignorant grade-level standards, the whole idea of the classroom is fatally flawed. Classroom groups are great for practicing cooperation and learning teamwork. But the classroom unit of 12 to 30 students does not serve the individual students well outside of those activities. The teacher is tasked with the impossible mission of standardized learning outcomes for all students in an unnatural institutional setting antithetical to developmental needs of children. This results in a continuous tension between freedom and compliance that is stifling to many students and stressful to teachers and students alike. It is ultimately dehumanizing to everyone involved.

The compliance is only necessary because we are trying to teach a group of individuals as if they were one person. The hoped for learning outcome is designed as if they were all the same person, even if we try different methods to “deal with” their innate differences.

Is school that respects the individual even possible? It might exist in a small setting with multi-age groupings. There, students could develop in their zone of proximal learning for every subject without the harmful concept of “grade level” defining success and failure. Until we abolish schools as they currently exist and replace them with compassionate learning communities respectful of everyone’s different needs, we are doing violence to our children in the name of education.


Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 11, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16994, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 1:50:48 AM

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