“To use an analogy, if the goal is for students to travel from Miami to Boston, the teacher keeps an eye on each student’s daily journey toward the final destination. S/he has no intention of having some students only make it to Atlanta or having others end up in Los Angeles. On the other hand, there are many highways and side roads that lead to Boston, as well as varied modes of transportation and timetables available. In no way does the teacher feel compelled to have every student travel exactly the same distance each day or always use the same mode of transportation.” 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. However, this will be my final blog post on the topic, coinciding with a half-day inservice we hosted on the topic in our district last week. I saved the quote above for my final memo because--although it is quite lengthy--I have always felt the analogy stands up well when illustrating, figuratively, the essence of differentiated classrooms: While we can and should design different routes and use different nodes of travel for different kids, they ALL must "Get to Boston" in the end.
As I close my series of musings on this excellent book, I looked back at Chapter 9, “How Do Teachers Make It All Work?” which offers broad guidelines for those interested in thinking about, planning for, and being leaders in differentiated classrooms. She organizes these guidelines into 4 groups:
- Getting Started
- Settling in for the Long Haul
- Some Practical Considerations
- Developing a Support System.
Within each of these general headings she shares a slew of solid tips, but space limitations lead me to focus on the “practical considerations” she shares. This section is further broken down into seven such considerations worth noting:
- Give Thoughtful Directions
- Establish Routines for Getting Help
- Stay Aware, Stay Organized
- Consider “Home Base” Seats
- Establish Start-Up and Wrap-Up Procedures
- Teach Students to Work for Quality
- Preempt Challenging Behavior
When you scan this list, I wonder if you thought like I did: these are not merely considerations for differentiation; these sound like components of effective teaching in general! If you simply read the six bullet points associated with item #1 above, “Give Thoughtful Directions,” you would surely think that these are just good tips for teaching in general. Indeed, in finishing this book, I realized an overall piece of good news: differentiation is, at its core, simply adhering to established tenets of effective teaching. Yet, a sobering caution: this means we must honestly reflect on what we are doing in our classrooms and consider with professional scrutiny where we may fall short--as well as celebrating our successes in establishing differentiated classrooms.
The reason so many educators around the world struggle with understanding differentiation or “implementing” differentiation is simply because of what it is NOT: it is not an instructional strategy, a collection of strategies, or a teaching model. Instead, it is a way of thinking about teaching and learning, a way that argues for beginning where individual students are rather than a prescribed series of actions that ignore student variance. Breaking the traditional mold of delivering a prescribed set of lessons aimed at the whole class is much more easy to agree with in principle than to actually do in practice. Yet, it is essential that we do so. Our kids are unique learners with unique needs and we must continue to know everything we can about them in order to meet them where they are while never losing sight of the destination to which they must all arrive. If “getting to Boston” is the end goal (although today, suffering through another frigid Chicago day, I would prefer going from Boston to Miami rather than the reverse!), all of our students need to arrive there. How each gets there and how long each spends at stops along the way can vary; that is not only OK; that is actually a good and normal thing. It can be a messy and difficult process, yet most things worth doing are not clean and easy.
Becoming an expert on differentiation is, in itself, a long journey. It is also much more than simply reading a book about it, even when the book is an excellent one, written by our foremost expert on the topic. It is about taking specific actions over time; becoming an expert at differentiation is a career-long goal, not a goal we will meet today by reading a book or by meeting with our colleagues to discuss it for a few hours during an in-service afternoon. Yet, just like we tell our kids when they face an arduous task, one step at a time, we will get there. I am proud of the teachers in our district and those I meet around the country for meeting each student they serve at their individual points of readiness, interest, and learning profile; doing so is another way we Teach with Passion in our schools!