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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Differences in Differentiation: New Options in Leading Schools?

Differences in Differentiation: New Options in Leading Schools?

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

I once sat in an audience of over 1000 listening to a four-hour lecture on differentiated instruction.  Imagine that … the irony.
I’m a big believer in differentiated instruction, having “lived it” as a teacher long before much of the current literature was published.  Great writing and professional development on the subject, for me, simply put “science” to my “art.”  Shamelessly put – I was a natural.
A few years ago as a school leader, I was championing the need for differentiating instruction in a high school, doing so through what I considered an ideal blend of Bill Daggett’s Quadrant D Instruction (2004) and thematic instruction, to which I fashioned the term, “D-Matic Instruction.”  Though it required much collaboration for teachers to pull-off, I marveled at how an enthusiastic staff excelled at doing “what’s right by kids,” or at minimum, “what made their boss happy.”  Kids really seemed to be doing well.
It was after much celebration of what appeared to be student engagement, that a good friend and veteran staff member came to me and asked, “Really, Ryan … do you believe we are doing kids any favors here?”
Dan was an incredible teacher, one of the best I have had the pleasure of working with in 20 years of K-12 education.  An intellectually astute, incredibly humorous, politically savvy social studies teacher (and self-proclaimed “Coach of Everything Athletic”), who would oftentimes argue his version of “life’s meaning,” treating the faculty lounge as his perennial, personal philosophy class.  He reveled in his own caricature and was truly the world’s best sport when rebuffed by his colleagues for debating the merits of the most recent election or haranguing about the plight of American’s youth.  Hence, I didn’t know if he was serious or just posturing for another faculty lounge debate.  He was serious.
Well, enough about Dan.  His point?
Simply this:  As educators, we can study the best research about effective classroom instruction, taking into consideration student learning styles, multiple intelligences, needs for differentiation, and even using the most incredible of styles in delivering it to children … yet in doing so, are we actually doing students a disservice, as we have not built within them the efficacy to survive and thrive in didactic instructional environments? 
Have we done students an injustice because we have not allowed them to build within themselves the resilience to successfully navigate a two-and-1/2 hour lecture?  After all, didactic instruction is what they may find, at times, in higher education.  And isn’t that our goal nowadays – to send most if not all students to college?
This is not an indictment of didactic instruction by any means.  It’s simply a healthy batch of questions to be asking.
Since those conversations with my former colleague, I have begun thinking differently about the notion of differentiation, something now that I consider more of a transactional differentiation  --  a style of differentiated interaction and communication, one that has a focus on meeting the psychological needs of students through certain perceptual frames, so that they build within them the energy to communicate – and even to learn – in modes that are not their preferred (Kahler, 2008).   
Kahler’s contemporary models of communication derive (with corporate and educational applications) from his Process Therapy Model® and share concepts similar to that of Transactional Analysis (Berne, 1964; Harris, 1967). Kahler’s own clinical discoveries, resulted in his being awarded the 1977 Eric Berne Memorial Scientific Award, honored by 10,000 of his peers in 52 countries (Kahler, 2008).
In a sense, the strategies I am posing for our thought and consideration are methods of differentiating so that one does not always have to differentiate, if that makes any sense at all.  They help students to learn from a didactic delivery style (or any style that is not a match to their “preferred”), more so than they are now.
“Riddle me this” (as Dan would say, with a style reminiscent of Frank Gorshin, 1966-68): If I have a teacher who lectures all day long, yet has such great communication that students feverishly devour the “didactisms” with rapt interest and an ability to apply learning beyond the classroom, is this a bad thing?  I would argue, “Not.”
Recent presentations of these perspectives, along with a demonstrations of targeted methods of enhancing communication and relationships to educators at Indiana State University and the Indiana Association of School Principals State Conference, have received rave reviews for not only the content of the sessions, but also for the potential relevance, or at least interest, of such to practitioners who are being asked to do so much, with such finite resources, and with such high standards of accountability. 
Something needs to “give” – something needs to be unearthed – to make things more efficient for today's Superheroes in education -- the hardworking faculty who are meeting society well-more-than-halfway in making a difference.  A new method of differentiation could be “just that.”
In meeting today’s demands and tomorrow’s challenges as scholar practitioners, we must turn our minds around the commodities of efficacy and resiliency that we must develop in our children so that they can survive and thrive as lifelong learners under any conditions.   At present, are we producing strong, capable learners with current efforts to differentiate, or as an unintentional result of our best efforts, are we producing smart, yet resiliently deprived kids who have trouble reaching beyond their optimal circumstances for learning? 
I once sat in an audience of over 1000 listening to a four-hour lecture on differentiated instruction.  Would our graduating students have the resolve?


Berne, E. (1964) Games people play. New York, NY: Grove Press.
Gorshin, F. (Actor). (1968, 1967, 1966). Portrayal of the Riddler [In television series episodes]. In W. Dizier (Executive Producer) Batman.  New York, NY: American Broadcasting Company.
Harris, T. (1967). I’m OK- you’re OK.  New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Daggett, W. (2004, June). American’s most successful high schools – What makes them work.  Symposium conducted at the 2004 Model Schools Conference Proceedings, Washington, D.C.
Kahler, T. (2008) The Process Therapy Model: The six personality types with adaptations. Little Rock, AR: Taibi Kahler Associates, Inc.


Dr. Ryan Donlan can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at for questions or comments regarding the content of this post or anything educational that is one your mind.  Please feel free to share.


  1. Dan sounds like a great guy. -Dan

  2. Dr.Donlan,
    I enjoyed your thoughts on differentiated instruction. I would argue that a great teacher must know his student's abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. This data allows him to "differentiate" his instruction. It may be based on his Lecture or other methods. I do not beleive merely changing teaching methods three times a class is differentiation. The students of that particular class may not need it.........or want it. Great topic Doc.
    Chuck Brimbury