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Differentiation on the Tennis Court

April 15, 2012

I coach high school tennis at my school, but I occasionally help out with the middle school (MS) too.  We need and have a total of 4 coaches.  Due to our busy schedules, we usually manage to get at least a couple coaches out on any given day.  Yesterday we had a MS practice with 10 kids (all boys) and 3 coaches.  The students’ tennis abilities and experience covered a very wide range.  We had a couple kids who could really strike the ball well; one was the son of a coach, so he’s grown up in and around tennis.  On the other end of the ability spectrum were a couple kids who were challenged to even make contact with the ball.  They generally have poor hand-eye coordination and lack any consistency, bless their hearts.  We coaches try to encourage them as much as possible, reaching for things to complement them on.

As coaches, we have the typical drills and challenge games to keep the kids interested.  Forehands, backhands, play points, serves.  We change hitting partners and drills based on our sense of the kids’ interest (boredom) level and how much time we have.  These drills are a little stale but get us through the practice session with kids hitting balls and hopefully gaining experience and confidence.  We got the kids to pick up the balls, packed up the equipment, and left the courts pretty drained.  A couple kids’ parents were late to pick them up, so they borrowed my cell phone, and we waited in the parking lot an additional 20 minutes until their parents arrived.

Would I call the practice a success?  Hmm.  It was certainly not optimum.  The better kids were bored at times, and were seen texting between rallys.  The weaker kids were overwhelmed and lost at times, and I fear subjecting them to such a direct comparison with the other more talented (and sometimes younger) kids will damage their confidence.

Later that day it struck me how similar the practice was to my classroom.  The students have such a wide variety of talents and abilities.  Some don’t speak/understand English very well.  Some lack the foundation skills needed for the subject.  The planned activities are sometimes a bit stale, since technology changes so fast.  The better kids get bored, and I can sometimes see them get impatient with their classmates.  The challenged kids get frustrated and maybe give up a little.  And there are 24 students in one class.

The popular buzzword solution to this situation is “differentiation.”  My administration uses this as a single-word solution to teaching a classroom containing students from all over the ability spectrum.  “Just differentiate your instruction,” I’m told.  I don’t know if the lack of appreciation for detail here is intentional, because once you start to pay attention to detail you see the enormity of the challenge.  Convenient ignorance allows you to stay on-message, at least.

On the tennis court we really couldn’t differentiate our instruction enough, and there were only ten students and three instructors.  Can we really expect one teacher to adequately differentiate to over twice as many students?

So to me “differentiation” has a different definition: an excuse for instruction on-the-cheap.  And this video on differentiation is scarily too close to reality.

And then I got to thinking, if I were in an administration position would I be doing the same thing?  The answer is no, definitely not.  But many administrators used to be teachers.  Surely they understand the inanity of this directive, right?  How can they look me straight in the eye and feed me these lines?  I can only conclude they fear they would be fired if they didn’t stay on-message.

I wonder if this is how Einstein felt when he said he should have been a plumber.

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