Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Tracking vs Differentiated Instruction: company stew or smorgasbrod?

Jack Spratt could eat no fat; his wife could eat no lean.
And so, betwixt the two of them, they licked the platter clean.
-- Nursery Rhyme

It makes a big difference in cost, preparation, and meal timing whether you serve the same mixed dish to everyone or have each person choose from a selection of offerings. School curriculum tends to vary from stew, for example, 11th grade English or geometry, to smorgasbrod, band, AP Calculus and astronomy.

Except to save time and money, it would not make sense to serve stew, if you knew some people would pick out the carrots; others, the meat; still others, the potatoes and everybody left the string beans. So we might try differentiated instruction (DI), instead.

On the other hand, very many varied foods may not be necessary, since people have tastes in common. In addition a smorgasbrod is likely to generate more garbage, as jalapeno-stuffed olives and raw oysters are passed over. It all depends on the clientele and the biggest constraint is cost.

Differentiated instruction (DI) is an attempt to serve each person his or her own special meal, a controlled smorgasbrod, if you will, based on curriculum theory. If, for example, the curriculum model for the school assumes are 4 ability levels, 7 “cognitive styles,” and 3 levels of subject development, then a teacher in a pure DI classroom would have potentially 4x7x3 = 84 basic models of preparation. Taught simultaneously! For a 45 minute class?!

Know-it-all pundits are always carping that education is not rocket science. No, it is harder, so far as the practice is concerned.

Pure DI is not practical. Kids get lost with only a few variations going on. And then there is the grading. How does a teacher give grades based on even three kinds of differentiation without seeming to parents and kids to be unfair? Because no matter how many times and with what sincerity you intone your mantra, “Equality is not necessarily fairness! Fairness is not necessarily Equality!” you will not convince the kids with the lowest grades – nor their parents. And why sweat the grades? What's the point? College, career, salvation? Will your smorgasbrod get you there?

So, suppose we de-emphasize DI and go back to tracking: put potato eaters together; and, also carrot munchers; and, meat grinders, etc. We say they are in different “tracks,” each with its own shared “curriculum stew.”

But where do these tracks lead? To the same place? Or, perhaps, we don’t know for sure. Then the word “tracking” is something of an illusion; at best, a schoolhouse distinction only vaguely mirrored in the outside world.

Did Steve Jobs study computers in school? Did Warren Buffet study stock investment in school? No and no. Do you know college-graduates working at retail selling? Have you heard of doctors or dentists who have dropped out to become painters or farmers? Probably yes and yes.

So where does all this tracking lead? College, career, salvation? Will your portion of stew get you there?

To examine four fallacious arguments for tracking, see Tracking in Public Schools

For some notes on constructivism and DI see Constructivism: the new scientism?

-- EGR