02 March 2011

Not Differentiating Kills

When I went to Basic, I assumed that they would put me with a bunch of older recruits.

I was, after all, 30 at the time. By the time I left boot camp nine weeks later, I was 31, but aged the equivalent of seven years.

I wish they had differentiated.

Not only was it hard to keep up physically with some of the younger guys, but it was near torture listening them argue over which one had the skankiest girlfriend.

Having gone from managing a classroom of high school students to living in the barracks with them, I can’t say that I was surprised. But I did get exhausted.

It reminded me of the need to differentiate, and taught me something new about one of the reasons teachers should do it more often.

First is the obvious: learners can hone in on those parts of the task that trouble them most. When I was learning to fire an M16, I was in the class of Soldier that didn’t know a lick about anything. Novice. Beginner. Idiot. Whatever the term was. I needed remediation, and so did a few others. We could have spent more time on the basics in our own differentiated small group.

Second is complementary to the first: teachers can spend more time teaching or re-teaching smaller constituent tasks or concepts, spending the overall time more efficiently.

The third reason—the one I learned at Basic—was one of motivation. When students are placed with skill level peers, they are less likely to get discouraged.

Now I wasn’t contemplating suicide over my incompetence. In fact, I eventually became quite a good marksman. But it is much more powerful—especially for younger learners—to have the confidence that comes with working alongside skill-level peers and progressing with them.

I learned the power of differentiation in the classroom. Trying to teach 35 kids some very complex and discrete things can be overwhelming. They all came in at different levels of understanding and skill.

Differentiating learning needs, then grouping accordingly, made tasks much more manageable.

Moving on to teaching college students, I have found that the best way to differentiate is to let them learn on their own or in small groups. Ultimately, it’s a metaphor for life. We tend to become very good at things we like to do, because we choose to spend more of our efforts in those areas.

By the time you’re 30, you will have figured that out. Hopefully, you won’t have had to live with a platoon of teenagers to get the lesson to stick.


  1. Freaky looking picture, but a great post.

  2. Hi Esther! Funny post, Rich! Basically, Basic was and will always be the highlight of one of my more memorable adventures -- an adventure in teenage torture tactics, for sure! It was all I could take and the infamous words of a dear friend, "it is not what I had planned"!

    Best guys!