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How Can Educators Differentiate Instruction in Overcrowded, Underfunded Public Schools?

In a recent 90-minute webinar with PresenceLearning, an audience member asked Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson, an expert on differentiated instruction, how educators can differentiate instruction in overcrowded, underfunded public schools with highly diverse classrooms. According to Dr. Tomlinson, it all starts with taking the first step.

This really is the question of the universe. It really doesn’t matter where you are —what country, what kind of school. Everyone has the sense that so much is coming at them: too many kids, too many needs, too few dollars, too little time, and they just feel they can’t do it.

Dr. Tomlinson recalled an educator from New York who had been teaching for 60 years. This educator had shared information about the complexity of schools in New York and the challenges of helping teachers to move along in their work. She would hear the same thing about differentiation time after time, “I can’t because of this, this, or this…” This educator would listen, nod, and let them know she understood, but would then say, “Now let’s do something.” And that is where you start. You do something one step at a time, and if you wait until conditions are perfect, classrooms will be even more diverse, and there will be more kids who are hurting every day.

The hard part is helping educators see and take that first step, and understand how it leads to the next step. The challenges of underfunding, overcrowding, and too little time aren’t going to change. So it’s important to have clear targets, reserve time and energy for those goals, and work together against the things that work against you.

You an only move forward one step at a time. Dr. Tomlinson has heard from teachers who wonder how they can differentiate 25, 30, or 35 kids in a class, but she has also heard from those who have only 15, or, in the case of a teacher in China, 90! The teacher from China went on to share four or five things that worked well and the difference she saw, but was still looking for more.

People also need to organize themselves. Think about growing a family. When you first bring home a baby, that is very different than it was with just you and your partner. Then you add a second child, and things become more complicated than one. And then maybe you add a third, and before you know it, there are dogs, a cat, two jobs, soccer practice, and whatever else. You simply reorganize for it. The same can be done in classrooms. Understand the challenges, but figure out what can be done in light of them.

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