Monday, February 16, 2015

The 22nd Friday: Effective Differentiation

“Fundamentally, differentiation is an instructional model focused on how teachers teach and how students learn in a classroom--not on what teachers teach or what students learn.” Carol Ann Tomlinson

My quest to learn more about differentiation by reading Carol Ann Tomlinson’s second edition of The Differentiated Classroom continues, as does my desire to share just a bit of my learning through this blog. The quote above comes from Chapter Five of her book, titled, “Good Curriculum as a Basis for Differentiation.” To ensure effective teaching and learning, we need to tightly link/align three learning elements that we often hear associated with differentiation: Content (what students should come to know and be able to do), Process (in a word, “activities”), and Product ( a vehicle through which students show what they know/understand/can do as a result of learning).

Last week, I shared a few of Tomlinson’s “what we know” versus “what we often do” statements. In this chapter, she describes an even bigger-picture contrast in these two areas, one that relates to our entire cycle of teaching.

A sensible cycle would be:

  1. Set clear goals for a unit of study...
  2. Develop tentative plans to help students master those goals...
  3. Check to see where students are relative to those goals prior to beginning instruction...
  4. Adapt the tentative plans based on what is learned about students’ needs...
  5. Teach the first segment of content with both the goals and students’ needs in mind...
  6. Check for student understanding of the content in the first segment...
  7. Adapt plans for the next segment based on what is learned...
  8. And so on and on…



Sadly, an all-too-common alternate pattern in schools looks like this:

  1. Decide what to teach first…
  2. Teach it…
  3. Decide what to teach next…
  4. Teach it…
  5. Decide what to teach third…
  6. Teach it…
  7. And so on and on…
  8. At one or more “concluding points” in the cycle, give a test so that there is something to record in the grade book.

As we peruse these two cycles of teaching and learning, let’s reflect on a few questions: Which of these models seems most effective to you? Which seems easiest? Which is more common in our schools? Which is best for our kids? In which model do we learn the most about students and our impact on their success? Do we know individual teachers or even whole departments/grade levels that excel in the "sensible cycle" of teaching? I am interested in how everyone answered; speaking for myself, I see much more of the former than I do of the latter and I think that is a good thing indeed. In addition, over the years I have noticed that our "special area" teachers (in particular, Art, Music, Physical Education, Band/Orchestra) are masters in differentiating their instruction in this sensible way and we have much to learn from them when endeavoring to differentiate our classrooms.

As but one simple example, let's look at a basketball coach or PE teacher teaching basketball skills. Let's say the goal is to teach students to shoot a right-handed lay up with correct form and shooting accuracy (clear goal). They might then start thinking about how they will teach the skill, how long it will take, and what they will do when some students either struggle to learn it or have already mastered it (tentative plans). After a brief introduction, they might first have students attempt lay ups to see how proficient they are already (pre-assessment). Based on how many students are already proficient, approaching proficiency, or well below proficiency, the teacher might revise her original plans, grouping students into stations and providing varying levels of support (adapt the tentative plans).

First, though, she might teach the whole group the skill by modeling, breaking the skill down by several different critical mini-skills (e.g. starting by simply executing three dribbles, then stopping with the shooting hand raised in an "L" position, while the right knee is lifted and leg tucked, planting firmly with the alternate foot), and having a few students attempt this, providing feedback to each. Then, she might have students work at different baskets, grouped strategically and offering direct support to the students who most need it (teach the first segment/check for understanding). Based on students' performance at this point, she might make plans for taking the skill to the next level, deciding whether and how to group students by levels of proficiency and support needed for mastery (adapt plans for next segment of instruction based on what is learned). Teachers who spend a great deal of their time focus on student performance (singing, drawing, playing an instrument, attempting a physical movement) seem to innately know that they must teach, observe, stop, provide feedback, re-teach, observe again, and so on. In short, they are master differentiators.

Effective differentiation requires that both teachers and students are crystal clear about what it is all students must know, understand, and be able to do. Effective differentiation requires that both teachers and students know where students are relative to these learning goals. Effective differentiation requires that we accept responsibility for ensuring that all subsequent instruction addresses any gaps between the learning goals and our knowledge of where each student is to each learning goal.


I am so thankful that the vast majority of teachers I know have moved beyond the traditional cycle of instruction to ensure that they are meeting the needs of their students. Focusing on goal clarity, using pre- and formative assessments to learn where each student is to these goals, and designing instructional plans based on these data points are all ways we Teach with Passion!




2 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing Jeff and causing me to think. The learning process should be driven by the how that way the what can always change to fit the learners needs. In your post you asked which strategy seems more effective and which seems easiest. A good friend of mine is always preaching that we must go slow to move fast. I believe the same is true here, teachers investing the time to reflect, refine, and include students in the learning process will end up with a process that is simpler, more effective, and more rewarding for teachers and students. Thanks agin for starting my brain this morning.

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    1. Kenneth,
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. The "go slow to go fast" wisdom holds much merit, in my opinion, when talking about leading any change efforts or simply in planning and delivering effective, efficient--and differentiated--learning experiences. Thanks again!
      Jeff

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