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Developmentally appropriate and individualized instruction: Do all kids learn the same?

There are about a hundred reasons why we need to get back to rigorous, peer reviewed research to inform educational policy. But the latest reason is very compelling. As if there isn’t enough squabbling on all sides about the Common Core, overtesting, and the merits of teacher evaluation, it seems the latest brewing “edusquabble” is over the merits of “developmentally appropriate” instruction.   Having studied special education, school psychology, and education policy, an attempt to cast aside decades of research on child development gives me pause.  I’m all for high standards, rigor and pushing kids at their challenge level, but minimizing sensitivity to developmentally appropriate teaching and learning, and ultimately individualized instruction, is troubling on many levels.  More importantly, show me the research that says all kids develop the same skills on a rigid timetable.

To suggest every child is ready and should be benchmarked at the same exact point in time is based on an arbitrary standard, not on an empirical body of knowledge.  High standards are critical. But, kids don’t all learn at the exact same rate in the exact same subjects at the exact same time—often not in the same house, not in the same class, not in the same grade, not in the same school.

Tell me, for example, my youngest daughter isn’t on her own “developmental trajectory” or isn’t developmentally delayed.  We rescued her from a Russian orphanage at 14 months old, so flimsy she couldn’t walk and had no word in her working vocabulary other than “ball” when we brought her home. Tell me she doesn’t need more time and intensive, individualized intervention to catch up. We have incredibly high standards for her, and we are fortunate to have the means to find her good tutors, a quality preschool, and the best speech and academic interventions (day and night) to help her master specific skills she needs.  She is indeed closing gaps in learning every single day.   But she is still behind her “peers”, and she will be for awhile. Does that mean we have low standards?  No.  Does that mean we are sensitive to her individual learning needs?  Absolutely.  And I would add, I promise you after making four trips to Russia, the “99% literacy rate” her Russian counterparts tout in that country do not include the hundreds upon thousands of kids living in orphanages and rural communities there.

But getting back to the point about developmentally appropriate learning—Even if you aren’t into empirical research, common sense and experience alone telI you kids don’t learn the same things at the same time, even in the same house. Parents have known this since the beginning of time. Teachers, good teachers, have known this anecdotally for decades. So why put the consequence for failed learning on a child?  Why are we, for example, promoting the policy of retaining kids for failing to meet an arbitrary benchmark in an arbitrary year? How can we do that in good faith if we are sensitive to a child’s unique needs and experiences that bring them to their present level of performance?

We should give every child what they need and go for individualized mastery of specific content instead. Do some temperature checks, yes. Do real time assessments at specific points in time that provide real time feedback that teachers and parents can use.  To do that effectively, though, we need to value student, teacher and parent voices, and we need to listen to them. We need to include all of them in deep conversations about individualized assessment tied to meaningful interventions for individual kids. Then we need to teach and reteach until the child masters a specific set of skills. Good teachers who are worth their salt know how their individual students learn best.  More importantly, no one knows a child better and how they learn better than the child, the child’s parents, and the child’s teacher. They should all be partners in a mastery learning approach.

In full disclosure, I innately dislike “one size fits all” approaches to education.  I’m a school choice, charter school proponent and have been for nearly 20 years. But that’s because I believe in parent voices, I understand learning differences, and to the grave, I believe in the original intent of school choice. I dislike “one size fits all” approaches to education, because as a teacher and parent of six children, I know kids, because I value the profession and study of child development, and because I value individualized learning approaches.

Ultimately, we need to learn so much more about learning, innovation, student engagement, and how to provide high quality instructional service delivery to each and every child. As parents and teachers, we aren’t done learning about learning yet.  It’s a journey, a process, not an event.  I fear in ignoring the database we’ve created so far on child development, on learning and human behavior, that emphasis will fall in favor of the latest think tank agendas. The agendas feed the journalists who feast on the latest controversies and spit them out in ugly headlines to sell papers and media slots. Journalists ultimately shape the policy and practice now in our local schools. This is an entirely new phenomenon in American education.

Thusly, a few, loud voices now determine local education policy and practice for kids and families. Worse, it seems we are getting farther and farther away from the rigors of university based, peer reviewed research to guide best educational practices for kids. Instead, there are shouting matches in efforts to grab the attention of those in power to drive policy.

In turn, opportunities for real innovation in practice seem a distant idea of the past, as all schools, traditional public and charter alike, begin marching to the beat of the same drum of common benchmarks and teaching to the single test. This threatens precious resources and time for creative teaching designed to meet the individual and developmentally appropriate needs of the unique child. Moreover, annual standardized tests do not provide teachers with necessary REAL TIME student data they need to make intelligent, swift instructional decisions for their kids.  Rather it allows policy wonks and think tanks to rank and sort teachers and school districts (which all too often turns out to actually be a ranking and sorting of poverty, but that is a subject for another day.)

Meantime, the policy wonks attack what used to be the holy grail of child and lifespan human development and individualized instruction because it suits them.  Educators and parents should speak up and stop allowing non-educators to ultimately place the consequence for academic failure on students and teachers out of fear of being called “soft on standards”, “weak on accountability”, “slow on turn around”, or other such shame rhetoric that simply isn’t true in many schools-charter or traditional. Quality education and opportunities for innovation in both types of schools calls for patience and clear heads.  Let’s stop degrading the teachers, stop retaining the children based on rigid benchmarks, and let’s remain sensitive to basic, well known premises of child development.  Let’s embrace parent and teacher voices in all kinds of schools. Let’s get back to rigorously studying what works for kids before we impose our “untested rigors” on them.

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