Differentiation: A Key Lever to Anti-Racist Leadership
Seems like a no-brainer, right? One of the first things I learned as a new teacher was, if students are at different ability levels it is the responsibility of the teacher to differentiate their lessons. As a novice teacher, I took this lesson to heart and during my math lessons, accompanying my whole-class lessons, there were opportunities for students at every learning level to extend their learning. For the learners who needed more support to grasp the lesson, I held teacher-led extension activities at the back table. The on-level learners worked in small groups to complete the day’s assignments. And the advanced learners knew where to find the extension activities to further their learning. By providing all levels of learners with the types of support they needed, I helped every student stay engaged and invested in the lesson and, ultimately, master the content.
It is well researched that differentiated teaching leads to increased levels of learning. So, why do we often abandon this practice with adult learners? Adult learners, just like emerging learners, have different levels of ability. However, when leaders in schools conduct professional development opportunities, we often forgo best practice and deliver a one-size-fits-all learning session with no opportunities for differentiation (i.e.- the “sit-and-get”). This style of adult learning opportunities surmises that if adults know-better-they-will-do-better. While some adult learners who learn to know-better will, in fact, do-better, most will be not able to translate the learning into practice. We, as adults often already know-better (i.e. — we know we should workout more, get more sleep, and stress less), but we often find we need much more support to do-better.
When it comes to leading for anti-racism with the goal of prompting adults to make changes in their practice, the know-better-do-better paradigm is woefully inadequate. First, conversations about race and racism are often uncomfortable and highly stressful for many adults, which stalls learning. Second, when reflecting on how personal beliefs and practices may spring from internalized racial bias and contribute to structural racism, individuals start at all different places on the racial identity development continuum. For some, this will be their very first time confronting internalized racism. While for others it may be old hat therefore, they enter already primed for extended learning. Given varying levels of racial literacy and comfort adult learners enter with, these types of learning opportunities necessitate differentiation.
When pursuing anti-racist leadership, differentiation for adult learning involves forgoing whole-group, one-size-fits-all training and creating activities and discussions that enhance learning based on levels of racial literacy. If the adult learner has never gotten the opportunity to engage in a critical conversation about race, prior to readings and direct instruction about anti-racist practices may be initial conversations about their personal experiences with race and racism to help them become more comfortable with participating in a deeper dive with others. Conversely, if the adult learner has high levels of racial literacy, has already incorporated anti-racist practices in the classroom, and is looking for other tools to help improve their practice, sitting in a room for three hours listening to a lecture about the history and implications of racism is time wasted. Instead, anti-racist leaders may be able to increase the learning and application of the advanced learner by enrolling them as a facilitator or co-leader of the work.
The bottom-line is coverall, one-size-fits-all approaches to anti-racist leadership is inadequate. Yes, differentiation takes a lot of preplanning, time, and effort to meet the needs of all learners. However, it is better to spend the time on the front-end planning to deeply engage all levels of learners, rather than realizing on the back end that the whole group, sit-and-get approach had little to no effect on changing practice.