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!




Sunday, February 8, 2015

The 21st Friday: My Dad, The Differentiator


“Moving students is not and will not be the solution to creating schools that work for all comers. The solution lies in finding the will to support teacher expertise in creating classrooms where ‘high-end’ curriculum is the standard and differentiation is the mechanism for helping a broad range of students to achieve or even exceed the standards for that level of rigor.” 
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. Chapter three is titled, “Rethinking How We Do School--and for Whom.” A highlight of this chapter is a chart listing 9 statements under the heading “What We Know,” juxtaposed with 9 statements under the heading, “What We Often Do.” Although each is worthy of reflection, two jumped out at me as particularly  important when thinking about differentiated classrooms:

What We Know: Students are more diverse today than at any time in our history. Diversity is normal and beneficial. What We Often Do: We tend to see student variance as problematic.

What We Know: Labeling and sorting students has not proven effective in raising student achievement and carries a significant price in terms of student perception of their own ability and that of others. What We Often Do: We tend to prefer labeling and sorting rather than creating inclusive classrooms designed to ensure that a broad range of students learn and work well together.

There is good news about most educators reading this post: Our philosophies and actions align more with the “What We Know” statements than with the “What We Often Do Statements” above. Regarding the first point, I firmly believe that the vast majority of educators I know welcome and embrace the idea that the kids we serve are diverse learners with varying strengths and needs. As for the second statement, the push to “sift and sort” kids often comes more from the parent community than it does from those of us working in schools. In short, most educators with whom I have served know and do what is best for students. Still, doing what is best for kids in the area of creating differentiated learning environments is no easy task. Although I have known scores of educators who I consider masters in differentiation, the other day it dawned on me that I actually was raised by a master differentiator: my dad. I suspect many of you can relate to his skills in this area:

As a lifelong businessman, my dad knew nothing about the education profession; in fact, I secretly think he looked down on the field to some extent. To his credit, he never uttered a word to me that suggested this and supported my unexpected foray into this noble profession with 100% of his energy and resources. Although he may not have been a staunch supporter of public education or known a whole lot about the art and science of teaching, he definitely valued learning and instilled that love of learning within each of his children--three kids who simply could not have been more different. My brother, two years older, was (let us hope he never reads this!) not popular socially and very uncoordinated physically. He rarely caused trouble at home or school. I, on the other hand, lived for one thing only: sports. I had many friends growing up and enjoyed getting into mischief with them whenever such opportunities arose. Our sister is nine years younger than I; we adopted her when she was six weeks old. She was/is very different than either my brother or me in every way, including her physical appearance, since she is adopted.

So how was my dad--who I am confident never heard the word “differentiation” (at least as it applied to teaching and learning)--a master “differentiator?” For those of you who are children of loving parents yourselves or raising children you love as much as my dad loved the three of us, you already know the answers:

  • He knew that we were all similar in many ways, yet all very different. 

  • He accepted our differences unconditionally and did not try to force us into a single mold. 

  • He believed each of us could grow, learn, and get better every day. 

  • He encouraged us to dream big and supported our differing dreams. 

  • He knew that each of us needed his support and help and he provided that while at the same time challenging each of us to become independent. 

  • He had high--albeit differing--expectations for each of us and insisted we each meet them. 

  • And, importantly, he played to our strengths, identifying what it was about which we were passionate and encouraging continued exploration of that source of passion.

In other words, he did what so many teachers I admire do for their students every day: “What we know” is right, according to Tomlinson. He embraced our differences, accepting that as normal, and refused to label us in any way, never letting on, for instance, that one of us was smarter, better-looking, and more charming than the others (despite overwhelming evidence that I was this sibling!).


When it comes to differentiating for your students, thank you for treating them like loving parents treat their children. Respecting--and responding to--the differences of our students is another way we Teach with Passion!