Differentiating without Differentiation: Turning You into You

Differentiation is a hot word in education.

‘Eduspeak’ is replete with similar words regarding what we as educators are doing for those children who are “different.” What accommodations are you making for the student with disabilities, or the student with autism, or the student who has social-emotional or behavioral needs? How are you meeting the particulars of their IEP or 504 or Behavior Plan, etc?

While our hearts have been in the right place, I can’t help thinking we’ve been trying to solve a puzzle with the wrong tools. What if the answer is not differentiation?

Deficit Mindest vs Strengths Mindset

When students are set apart through differential treatment, even if the intent of the treatment is to “meet their needs,” it sends a message to both the differentiated student and the rest of the students. This action implicitly says “That student is different than you.” This could be interpreted both to mean they are more important than you, or less important than you. Either way, it places a divider between that student and the others. The student with needs is apart from the community, and therefore not safe. The community considers that student as something outside their community so they are less likely to include him or her.

What if, instead of treating those students different, we simply gave everyone the individualization they need?

Students would flourish better in a environment where each student receives the unique educational individualization they need. Instead of a “student with dyslexia” or a “student with hearing loss,” we would define each child by what they have, not what they lack. Perhaps the child in the front row is the “student with leadership skills,” or the one who won’t stay in his seat is the “student with unique creative thinking.”

Lesson from Po-sychology

The best example I can give for this situation comes from everyone’s favorite kung-fu-fighting panda: Po. In the third movie of the Po story, he travels to a secret panda village to find his family. At the same time, an evil bull named Kai is on his way to destroy Po, the pandas, and everything Po holds dear.

Po is tasked with learning the ancient secrets of Chi, a power said to be kept in the pandas’ care. Chi is the only way to defeat Kai, a master of harnessing the energy of the universe. Po must also teach the pandas kung fu to help them defend their village. When Po discovers the pandas have lost the secrets to Chi and cannot learn kung fu in time, he despairs.

All seems hopeless and the pandas prepare to escape. That is when Po realizes it doesn’t matter what they can’t do – it only matters what they can do. He doesn’t have to do things in a set way, or turn the pandas into some past version of what kung fu fighters and Chi masters used to look like. He only has to help the pandas use their strengths to fight Kai right now. He says:

“I don’t have to turn you into me! I have to turn you into you!”

A new plan of action is born. Now, instead of trying to teach the pandas to become fierce, focused, fast, and furious kung fu fighters like those who had come before, Po teaches the pandas how to use their own individual strengths to fight the powers of evil. The ribbon dancer uses her ribbons to tie and twirl up the villain. The little ‘hacky-sack’ boys use their skills to kick fire crackers. The rollers roll, the bouncers bounce, and the huggers hug. Each and every panda is successful by doing exactly what they are good at doing. No differentiation, no accommodation. No “oh, you can’t do this because you are lacking etc, etc, etc” but rather “Wow-look what you can do! Now can you do this?”

To motivate the pandas, Po tells them that their strength comes in “being the best you you can be.”

Finding the Best You

Our mission is not to turn kids into miniature replicas of ourselves or other people, but rather to turn kids into the best version of themselves. This won’t happen if we approach our students from a place of deficit, or trying fill in the gaps between what they don’t have and what we want them to have.

Image by Elias Sch. from Pixabay

I had a student who, from a typical educators’ standpoint, had almost every deficit you can imagine. He had a learning disability, social-emotional deficits, peer conflicts, and behavioral issues. He couldn’t read or write, couldn’t do much math, and never did homework. He had no stable home but rather was juggled around various family members and foster homes while his mom tried to get clean. He was put in a foster home with his sister for a while, then moved to another foster home away from his sister. He returned to mom when she was clean, taken away from mom when she was using, and returned again. He would steal from you and lie straight-faced to you while he helped you look for the items he had just stolen.

Image by Alexandr Ivanov from Pixabay

And he was one of my favorite students because he had one strength – he was creative. Abnormally, very, out-of-this-world creative. He had a thirst for knowledge, just not the school-type of knowledge. He could look at things in a different way than any other student in the entire room. He loved learning about Beethoven and the difficult life he led, comparing it to his own life. He would share ideas that even I hadn’t thought of. I cried the day that he left my school because he had been sent to yet another different home. He is one that I think about at least weekly. He was an utter failure at our school, a candidate for expulsion, and everyone’s thorn in their side. But in music class, he excelled. He was in an environment that played to his strengths.

This student received “accommodations” and “differentiation” to try to remedy his “deficits.” But what if we had seen his situation not through what he lacked but rather what he possessed? An extremely intelligent and creative boy that was able to survive in a horrible life, with a way of looking at the world that no one else could see. Could we have met his needs, and the needs of all the student around him, if we had not set him apart as needing differentiation, but rather put him right in the mix with everyone else as a person with something to contribute to the community?

Don’t we want our kids to “be the best you that you can be??!!” Let’s individualize instead of differentiate. Let’s treat our kids as individuals, with strengths and weaknesses, preferences and interests. And perhaps we’ll discover that while our students may not have the ancient secrets to harness the power of Chi, they do have some pretty kick-ass skills.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

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