In this 10 Minute Tuesday, Eduplanet21 speaks with PLUS Author Carol Tomlinson about the connections between differentiation and curriculum. Beginning with a definition, and moving towards "teaching up" this conversation includes first-person stories that bring her ideas to life.
Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia where she taught courses in curriculum and instruction as well as serving as Co-Director of the School of Education and Human Development’s Institutes on Academic Diversity. Prior to joining the faculty at UVa, she was a public school teacher for 21 years, including middle school, high school, and preschool. She was named Virginia’s Teacher of the Year in 1974, Outstanding Professor at Curry in 2004, and received an All-University Teaching Award in 2008. In 2020, Carol was ranked #12 in Education Week’s overall Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings for university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling and #4 in the field of Psychology. She is the author of 16 books on the topics of differentiated instruction and curriculum as well as many professional development materials and over 200 articles. Her books have been translated into 12 languages.
You can learn more about Carol’s Professional Learning Institutes on our website:
If you prefer to read a transcript of this conversation, it is available below.
Clare Coupe Scott
Welcome to Eduplanet21’s 10 Minute Tuesdays. These are conversations with experts in education. My name is Clare Coupe Scott, and I work with the professional development at Eduplanet21. So today, I'm lucky enough to be joined by Carol Tomlinson. She's one of the world-renowned experts in differentiation, lifelong educator, and just overall fun person to speak to. Carol, thanks so much for joining me today.
I'm delighted to be here, and I think Clare Coupe Scott’s a pretty fun person to talk to as well.
Clare Coupe Scott
So, Carol, there's lots of things you and I could talk about today, but what I'd really like to focus on is differentiation and curriculum. Could we start with a definition? Can you share your definition of curriculum?
Well, my simple definition of curriculum is what we teach and what we ask students to learn, and I think we should sort of start at that point. But I think curriculum is a design plan to help students make meaning and make sense out of the disciplines and out of the world around them and out of themselves. You didn't ask me this, but what I do not think curriculum is, is stuff you cover to prepare kids for a test. I think it's a much grander thing than that, and that it really is the opportunity that schools have to introduce kids to study of the wonderful things in the world around them in a systematic way.
Clare Coupe Scott
Terrific. And what are some of the key attributes of a quality curriculum?
Well, I think we know enough now from research. These things I think we already knew from things like our own practice and from work in psychology and research in pedagogy. Now, brain science is reinforcing that, but curriculum is much more likely to achieve its ends if it is organized around clear learning targets, learning goals, learning intentions, and those need to reflect in an organized way the most essential knowledge, the most essential understandings, and the most essential skills in that segment of learning. If we don't trim it down a little bit to what's most essential, then we find ourselves chasing ourselves all the way down the pike from the first day of school till the last and hardly can breathe when we get there. And brain science, if not common sense, tells us that's not a good way to go. So, really organized learning targets, which I call KUDs, what students should know, understand, and be able to do, exactly what Wiggins and McTighe call essential knowledge, essential understandings, and essential skills.
And then I think curriculum has to engage learners. If it doesn't catch their brains, as one person said, it's like throwing marshmallows at their faces and calling it dinner – it just doesn't stick. They sit in the classroom, but it doesn't stick. So I think we have to have curriculum with a plan for engagement, and I think we have to have curriculum that we plan to ensure student understanding of what they're learning. Once again, we've seen this in our own classes. But brain research explains to us that if students don't understand what they're learning, they can't remember it, they can't retrieve it, they can't apply it, they can't transfer it. And so understanding and by the way, that engagement and understanding thing, I think, create the kind of satisfaction and joy and curiosity that we hope learning will be.
The other thing that I add to this, which I have come to feel is really important in recent years looking, is that we need to teach up. We need to design curriculum that would be alive and vibrant and exciting and frustrating and confounding, but alluring to our most school like kids, the ones that like being in school and that make good grades or don't make good grades, but they learn because learning is wonderful. We deny that to a lot of students now because we decide they can't do those things. I think we ought to start teaching with our plans, with that kind of robust curriculum and then scaffold up to help other students reach there. In other words, teaching up is the opposite of teaching down to people that we believe can't do the teaching up stuff. I think we have plenty of evidence that they can and that we are much better in what we do if we design curriculum in that way.
Clare Coupe Scott
Typically, I think most educators teach for the middle right? And then they might add something to differentiate up and differentiate down. But what you're suggesting, again, is that teaching up is starting with how do you engage your most advanced learners and then adapt from there. Am I understanding that correctly?
Yes. If you're teaching advanced learners like they deserve to be taught, not just giving them more stuff and faster stuff and harder stuff, that's not anything but learning that would challenge their minds and engage their minds. And interestingly, our minds are not all that different. And so if we did things that were really compelling to those students and opened the doors and said, you know what? I bet other kids can do compelling things too, and supported them in doing that, that would work much better. Teaching to the middle never could. It hits a narrow stream of students. But even there we look at kids who are doing what we think of as grade level work and they're making C's, and we think that's fine. But the truth is that if we engaged and challenged those students with the right support, they wouldn't be C students anymore. They'd be doing better work at what we might think of as a B level or an A level. So I think it has a lot to do with work of people like Carol Dweck, with a growth mindset, but things that we just know about ourselves in general.
When people pay us the compliment of thinking we're capable, we suddenly look more capable and we're more interested in what we're trying to do.
Clare Coupe Scott
I know you have tons of stories either from your own teaching or from working with lots of teachers. Can you give me an example of where you saw a teacher effectively do that, where they taught up and made that shift from teaching to the middle?
There are many of them that come to mind for me from preschool through high school. But one that popped into my mind right then is a former colleague of mine. When I was teaching in Warrington, Virginia, in middle school for 21 years, and he taught at the high school. And his sense of it was that he was teaching science because of the love of science and wanting to share that with other people. And so from the beginning, he had a room full of resources, including animals of various kinds, not dead ones, but very alive ones and invited his students in to think with him about what questions were important and what they were studying and to find out information about those and ultimately to design experiments and then figure out what it took to enact those experiments and analyzing what they got and figuring out where they were off track and on track. And the kids in his classes will tell you that those were the best years they ever had in school. They worked together. There was a lot of conversation back and forth.
And if a skeptic said to him, well, what about the test?
He said, well, every once in a while, I'd give them a test that was kind of like the one that was coming. But I did not teach in order to do test prep. I taught kids for helping them learn what it means to do science, to be science, to understand science. He said, I decided if they ever told me I had to do otherwise, I'd just go find something else to do. But nobody in that class said, oh, you're not supposed to be smart. They said, you're in our group. Let's figure out what to do here.
But I would also tell you that there was a long time in my own life where I had no sense that I had any possibilities. My best day was one when no teacher made eye contact with me. And I had a couple of teachers who looked at me in an entirely different way and were expecting me to be something very different and to do something very different. And it revolutionized who I was for the rest of my life. And I was fortunate. I could share many instances of that with you. I think that's just a human thing.
When people look at us and see things that we can't see as possibilities and move forward on that, it lifts us up every time.
Clare Coupe Scott
So my last question is about making that connection so where there are different curriculum frameworks that people use. Most often our customers use Understanding by Design®, but where does that differentiation come in? When you're designing your curriculum, when you're designing your courses, your units, your lessons, where does that come in?
Well, that's a really great question, Clare, because most frameworks, if they do anything about differentiation, just have a box, are you differentiating? And they might have a little square that you're supposed to fill in so you can see materials. And that's it. That's the end of that. I think the curriculum has to expect differentiation, and that means several things. It means that there has to be enough time for flexibility. I think the curriculum needs to expect and coach teachers to build in what I call highways and exit ramps. Times that we're all together in the class doing roughly the same thing. Even though a teacher can differentiate a lot, even while he or she's presenting, but also exit ramps. Times when kids get off that highway, which sometimes feels like a treadmill and can do the things that they need to do to patch holes, to move ahead, to attach things to their own interests. And if a curriculum is just here's what you have to cover, and you have less time than there is in the world to do it, then we don't get anywhere. So I think a curriculum has to anticipate that a framework, make space for it, show people how to do it and support the doing of it.
That is possible with Understanding by Design® for a variety of reasons. But because Wiggins and McTighe understand both curriculum and instruction because they've done some work themselves on ways that you can think about making room for more students. And because they are insisting, which can't insist too much, but guiding us to use big ideas which can be relevant to should be relevant to all of the kids in your class should have life connections and that kind of thing. And because they are expecting that the real outcomes are performance, not just repetition. So, I think there's plenty of room in that, although there are lots of things that we still have to make the decisions on ourselves.
Clare Coupe Scott
Great. Well, Carol, I think we actually kept it close to 10 minutes. I know we both thought that might be a challenge, but I look forward to having future conversations with you.
I want to remind our listeners that Carol has a full Eduplanet Professional Learning Institute on differentiation. Curriculum is just one of the courses in that institute. There's lots of information. It's a great way for teams of teachers to get together and learn about differentiation and put things right into practice. So I'll make sure there's a link to that in the notes for this 10 Minute Tuesday.
Carol has also recently published two books. One is called and I'm going to read from it so I get it right. Everybody's Classroom: Differentiating for the Shared and Unique Needs of Diverse Students. She also released So Each May Soar: The Principles and Practices of Learner Centered Classrooms. And she recently released a second edition of of Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom. So those are all great resources to you, the institute, as well as her books.
Hopefully you learned something today, but you deepen your learning with her as well.
Carol, thanks so much for joining me today.
Thanks very much for the opportunity. It's always a pleasure to be with you.