Do you remember those “Got Milk?” commercials from a few years back? They were part of an advertising campaign designed to encourage young people to drink more milk so that they could get stronger and develop into their potential. The premise was centered around well-known celebrities and athletes posing for pictures with the infamous milk mustache painted across their upper lip. The goal of the milk industry was to get everyone drinking milk, after all, “all the cool kids were doing it” and it was healthy.
I am a school administrator charged with planning professional learning events for a few hundred staff members throughout the year. One thing I have learned through the years is that food and drinks make every meeting a little more enjoyable. I wonder what would happen if at my next meeting I took the advice of the “Got Milk” ads and decided to provide every single teacher a small jug of white milk to consume during the meeting. Would this be warmly embraced by everyone? I mean, my intentions are genuine. I want everyone to be healthy. The advertisements indicate that amazing results are dependent on drinking milk, and more importantly, I enjoy a nice glass of milk sometimes, so it must be good for everyone, right?
Of course not. First of all, in this day and age, it is a reality that not everyone can safely drink milk. There is an increase in the number of people who have developed an intolerance to it, so what is healthy for some is actually dangerous for others. Secondly, there are some who may see milk as healthy, but may simply dislike the taste. Just because some like it, doesn’t mean everyone will. Lastly, just because an advertisement sent a message proclaiming quick and easy results, we all know a simple glass of milk is not what gave Brad Pitt his looks or Alex Morgan her athletic abilities. There is more to it than a milk mustache.
I use these stories to make a point about classroom instruction today, specifically how to support a popular buzz word DIFFERENTIATION. In a lot of schools and districts we have asked teachers to make all of their instructional decisions centered around data. Data meaning those meaningless numbers relating to scale scores, RIT points, percentiles, and a lot of other statistically irrelevant terms. We ask teachers to take these numbers, numbers that many do not fully understand, and ask them to make all of the lesson plans based on them. We test kindergarten students before they even walk into our classrooms so that we can see their level. We test reading levels every few weeks so that we can make sure students have their “best fit” book. We separate students as advanced, at-risk, and average based on what the numbers say is healthy and best for them. The problem is, we often have no idea what the real differences are.
There is more to data than numbers, just like there is more to milk than the nutritional label. In the name of differentiation, we have actually drifted towards unilateral instruction. We don’t actually make things different for kids, we simply sort, select, and then instruct. We make the decisions about what we think is best and then expect happy, growing consumers of what is being delivered. The key to differentiation is actually providing choice. It is about providing a variety of options that all get us to our goal, but allowing the consumers to decide what may work best for them.
At the next staff meeting, I may decide that I only want snacks that are healthy, but providing only peanuts and milk will not work. Although these may be good for the majority, there are severe consequences that are possible for some as a result of these options. As the leader/teacher, it is important for me to find out what others need. Maybe I should provide water, organic juice, a smoothie bar, as well as milk. All allow me to reach my goal of providing healthy refreshment, but those in attendance have a choice.
Aside from serving my school district full time I also have many roles within my family. I serve those under my roof and try to accommodate those who I call my family. In my personal time, I enjoy a nice craft beer or IPA. I enjoy the taste of strong hops and like supporting local breweries. When my parents come to visit, however, my dad makes it clear that he is a Miller Lite man, always has been, always will be. When he comes to visit I can profess that I don’t care what he likes, because this is my house or I can try to accommodate what he needs and desires. Being the good son that I am, there is always a 12 pack of Miller waiting for him.
At my house, I have a few varieties of beer available. When my dad comes to visit, he knows what I prefer and someday he may choose to try what I like, but until that day comes, I will still provide his watered-down, Miller Lite. After all, the goal is to help him relax and enjoy some quality time. If his gross beer does that for him, God bless.
In our classrooms we can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking, “This is my classroom. I get to decorate the bulletin board. I get to make the rules. I get to decide what my students consume.” But it is extremely important to remember that just because it is good for you, just because it worked for you, does not mean it will work for your kids. You may have been great at memorizing vocab. School maybe came easy to you. You may love playing review games and making kids go to the front of the room in front of their peers. You may really like that one novel. You may really think that making a kid read a select title because it is at “his level” is best, but unless you ask, you won’t really know if this is best for your kids. As the teacher, you are the host, not the boss. Our job is to serve up content so that it can be consumed. Our job is to reach EVERY kid but this can only be done by reaching EACH kid. There is a difference.
This week in your school and classroom, think about how you are delivering your instruction and ask yourself, are you trying to get every kid to drink milk or are you asking each kid what they would like. This will make the difference this year.
To read more of Dave’s thoughts, check out https://schmittou.net