On Differentiation

Differentiation is not a tactic. It is a way of thinking. It is a mindset, a mindset that comes from observing and absorbing and respecting. Most of all, it is a commitment to engage with people … not in a manner to which they are merely unaccustomed, but in a manner that they will value, respect, and yes, perhaps even celebrate.- Youngme Moon, Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd

Books about education often bore me. I have read so many good ones (too many to count), but, like all genres, the majority are soporific. I tend to prefer reading books that are about the contextualization of learning. And if the book has a touch of iconoclasm in it, then all the better.

Youngme Moon’s Different, about paradigm shifting in the world of business, is one such book. In it, she contends that most brands are in a foolhardy race to mediocrity and indistinction because of their inability/unwillingness to diverge from creative and competitive norms. Replace the word ‘brands’ with ‘schools’ and ‘marketers’ with ‘educators’ and you’re close to the discourse on so-called 21st Century Learning.

The main question I asked myself while reading is a question I ponder almost everyday as a teacher and parent of young people: How do we create learning environments that are inherently differentiated and, thus, innovative? I’ll never forget the first time I saw an education publisher put out a (very expensive) resource on ‘differentiated instruction’. I knew there was problem. My horror only increased once I noticed how full it was of blackline masters.

Differentiation is not a series of events and choices that occur in the process of arriving at a point of convergence. In other words, who cares if everyone is driving different cars if they are still arriving at the same, pre-determined destination at the exact time of day? At some point, there needs to be room for divergence and surprise, does there not? At its core, differentiation, to me, is simply an approach to learning where we provide the tools, space, time, feedback, and release of control for learners to come up with original ideas. It’s more of a climate, a culture. Moreover, this process is completely dependant on the needs presented by the learners in the room.

In Different, Moon admonishes us against prescriptive remedies to a lack of innovation in business. She also contends that the most innovative brands and marketing campaigns have usually succeeded by choosing to stop doing certain things rather than just doing more. I would pass along these warnings to any of us that are trying hard to make our learning spaces innovative and differentiated. As Moon says,

Difference is deviance. Difference is permutation. Difference is a commitment to the unprecedented, which is another way of saying it is a commitment to letting go.

For more inspiration, check out Moon’s video below: My Anti-Creativity Checklist from Youngme Moon on Vimeo.



  1. Bang on! I’ve been reflecting on the term differentiation
    and I too worry about how others are “implementing differentiation”
    instead of shifting their thinking about learning. I like the word
    climate instead of culture. Your blog has me thinking…Thanks.

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