“…Every student is worthy of learning the most compelling content available, so the teacher in a healthy classroom begins by thinking about what would interest and challenge the most advanced learners and differentiates to create access for each student to that curriculum.” Carol Ann Tomlinson
Having served as a classroom teacher for eighteen years, I am intimately aware of how difficult, rewarding, and impactful the the job is; after leaving the classroom, I have served in many other educational roles. Although each has been challenging and rewarding, I remain convinced that none is as impactful to student performance as that of the classroom teacher. As such, I have extolled the virtues of amazing teachers wherever I go. As we embark upon a new year of teaching and learning in schools around the world, I want to remind everyone just how important--and challenging--this noble job is. One of the greatest challenges for many able teachers is the challenge o meet the needs of students with diverse learning needs. I have never been a fan of sifting and sorting students into tracked programs of student, particularly at the K-8 levels. I suspect this promotes a culture of educational winners and losers; while this may have been the norm for many years in public education, we now know that all students deserve and need rigorous and relevant learning experiences. We need to believe that all students can learn at high levels and give our students the confidence in themselves to learn at high levels.
One way we foster confidence within our students is by differentiating our instruction. To be completely honest, at times I grow weary of the very term “differentiation.” I do so partly because so few people outside our profession even understand its true meaning. I think many hear “differentiation” and think, “exciting learning activities.” Well, “exciting learning activities” is a good thing indeed, but such a concept should be the default plan for daily lessons in all classrooms across our district—and the world—and the rule, rather than the exception. In order to remind myself what differentiation is—and is not—I recently purchased Carol Ann Tomlinson’s second edition of The Differentiated Classroom, published just last year. I am poring over it slowly and carefully in order to become better informed about this important topic. In the weeks ahead, I plan on sharing my learning about this important topic through this blog. The first point worth sharing is simply to focus on Carol’s subtitle: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Stripped to its core, differentiation is as simple—and complex—as this: We must respond to the needs of our kids.
In our district, this often means responding to kids who need to be challenged to exceed, rather than merely meet, expectations—expectations inherent in the Common Core, PARCC, MAP, our own minds, and even in the minds of students themselves. I spent several years working with a colleague who often said about our schools, “What’s best for the best is best for the rest.” In the Tomlinson quote at the top of this memo, she is suggesting the very same thing, albeit in a less catchy way. We must think of minimum expectations such as the Common Core as the floor, not the ceiling, when it comes to what our kids must know and be able to do—and the learning experiences we must provide them so that they meet such lofty expectations.
As we plan our instruction based on our respective curriculum standards—whether those are Common Core ELA standards, Next Generation Science Standards, or fine arts standards—I encourage teachers to start with Tomlinson’s suggestion that we consider what would interest and challenge the most advanced learners and then differentiate so that we provide access to these challenging, compelling, and interesting standards and activities for all students.
In her book, Tomlinson devotes one chapter to “Learning Environments that Support Differentiated Instruction.” A characteristic of such an environment—from which I extracted the quote above—that she describes is one in which teachers setting high expectations while concomitantly providing lots of ladders is the norm. We must encourage all students to reach for the stars educationally and offer each the size, type, and scope of ladders necessary to travel there. Carol concludes this section of the chapter with an accurate and important comment: “Most young learners don’t know how to grow beyond where they are today, until a teacher shows the way.” Showing our students the way to a vision of themselves as learners beyond their existing one is yet another way we Teach with Passion!