One of my favorite things to do as a kid growing up in Minnesota was to go out on the lake and spend all day fishing. I spent a large part of my childhood in the summers fishing and would jump at the chance to learn something new in order to become a better fisherman. I would watch fishing shows, read magazines, go to large sales at the local stores; all in order to become the best fisherman I could. There were things that I learned early on that seem to relate to our work as educators and I am a sucker for analogies.
My favorite way to catch fish was by casting a spinnerbait and reeling it in. This was an active technique as I didn’t have to wait for the fish to come to me, I would go to the fish and search out large areas quickly. I would catch a large variety of fish. I could easily spend a whole morning just working my way around the lake as I cast my spinnerbait into weed lines and fishing docks.
The thing is though, that no matter how much I enjoyed fishing this way, it did not always mean that I would be successful in catching a fish. Any good fisherman knows that there are a lot of variables that affect whether a certain lure or technique will get you a fish. The weather that day, the weather the previous days, the water temperature, the water color, the acidity of the water, the amount of baitfish or other food sources, the amount of predators, the number of people fishing in that area, the amount of noise in that area, ….. (you get the idea). Not to mention your own abilities with that technique.
The fact of the matter is that you can’t expect to be successful if you only use one technique over and over again as the variables change. This is just as true for teaching as it is for fishing. To be the best fisherman I can be, I need to know a large number of techniques and how to use a wide variety of different lures and tackle. To be the best teacher I can be, I need to know a large variety of pedagogical techniques and a large variety of tools (both digital and analog).
We do not teach a classroom full of clones that all come in with the same abilities, home-life, experiences, interests, and physical characteristics. While our favorite technique will work with a certain topic, on a certain day, with certain students; it will not work all the time despite how much we enjoy using that technique. This is where we need to have aware of various techniques and tools, as well as how they interact with the content, in order to best reach our students.
Differentiation does not mean individualization, it means that we do not do the same thing every day and that we do include variety in our techniques. This variety can be from one lesson to the next, or it could be where we offer choices to our students. Choice can include how they learn (readings, videos, interactive simulators, class discussion, group work, …) to how they are assessed (applications, papers, tests, projects, …). We give our students access to the tools that best fit their needs in order to better meet those variables that affect their learning. We focus on the student and if/how they are learning, and how what we do impacts that.
We can still use our favorite techniques, just as I will always enjoy using a spinnerbait when fishing, but we can’t fool ourselves into believing that it will work for everyone. No matter how good we are at that technique, it won’t work for every student on every day. To continue to only use one or two techniques is to ignore all of the pedagogical and cognitive theory research out there. The best we can do is to use those techniques that we are good at and enjoy, but also look ways we can improve in other ways, to add new and better techniques and tools, as to help as many students as possible.
And to make another connection, this seems to fit a lot with the Ted Talk about The Myth of Average, one of my favorite Ted Talks I have seen.