Theory and Differentiation

John Knowles’ classic  A Separate Peace has been taught in the middle school classroom for many years.  The complexity of the first person narrative from Gene’s perspective, his relationship with his peers, school, teachers, community and world reveal the very nature of the early adolescent experience in a competitive, pressure-filled school environment.  Conflict, friendship, competition, identity, change, confusion, world relevance, efficacy and the struggle between success and failure (and the resulting impact each has on the sense of self and one’s relationship with others) are all elements of the text that appeal to adolescents.  Although I have always known that the appeal lies in the students’ ability to recognize so much of their own experience in the experiences of the characters, the process of studying educational psychology and reading the multitude of research articles has given me theoretical and empirical basis to understand why the events of the book unfold as they do. For instance, many believe we all have neurotic needs, and that we either pursue them healthily, or neurotically.  The early adolescent, who is experiencing greater change during the 12-15 year range than any other three year period, whether the change is physical, emotional, intellectual, spritual, psychological etc.  struggles with the pursuit of these needs.  Since the adolescent spends more time at school, with teachers, peers, coaches and administrators,  the need for educators to be aware of the healthy and neurotic pursuit of these needs by adolescents is necessary for us to better serve the middle school aged student.  Increasingly in the classroom, the use of differentiation and varied instructional, curricular and assessing methods is providing the diverse population that is the middle age student with a higher level experience.

Carol Tomlinson defines differentiation. “Differentiation can be defined as an approach to teaching in which teachers proactively modify curricula, teaching methods, resources, learning activities, and student products to address the diverse needs of individual students and small groups of students to maximize the learning opportunity for each student in a classroom” (Tomlinson, 1999).  Tomlinson’s name appears in so many of the most effective resources I found on differentiation, so I have adopted her definition as the archetype.

My original motivation for writing this piece was to explore how a complex theory regarding neurotic needs and/or perfectionism could help educators gain a better understanding and awareness of the highly dynamic middle school population with the goal being to provide basis for more purposeful differentiation. Neurotic needs, perfectionism, achievement goal orientation and efficacy are all areas about which educators and parents need to be aware as educators’ recognition and understanding of these through being aware of how they are manifest in student behavior can be a tremendous tool for those  who desire to best serve their students through differentiation.


Tomlinson, C. A., Brighton, C., Hertberg, H., Callahan, C. M., Moon, T., Brimojoin, K., et al (2003).Differentiating Instruction in Response to Student Readiness, Interest, and Learning Profile in Academically Diverse Classrooms. Journal for the Education of the Gifted , 119-145.Retrieved on May 22, 2010 from Wilson Educational Full Text.


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