Our topic this week was to try to come to an understanding of what a differentiated classroom looks like. For me, this was one of the most engaging discussions because there is so many opinions as to what true differentiation looks like.
Here is just some of what was said:
- Today I felt less lonely as a teacher and see that lots of the ideas I struggle with alone we are all struggling with as a group of professionals. Differentiation looks like a set of beliefs about how students learn and how students teach that can change our approach in the everyday classroom work towards more inclusive and more creative activities and teaching objectives. I believe it is best achieved with good classroom management as a basis and let's not forget school or staff's support. It doesn't work that well if I use it in one subject and the other teachers don't, for example.
- Differentiation is synonymous with equity. It is about giving each student what he or she needs to be successful. It is about our mission and vision for schools. Do we want to reach ALL STUDENTS or some students? If we are differentiating effectively then we are attempting to reach them all. The challenge for schools is that we are too traditional in many cases and are under the unfortunate misconception that students will all learn at the same pace. It is about getting students to reach academic standards at their own pace. For some this could mean taking college courses in grade 11 and for others it could mean taking college courses later.
- Differentiation involves first- identifying where students are with good quality surveys (interest, learning styles, MI, right/left brain...) as well as pre-assessments to identify prior knowledge so that we can build on that. Classroom learning is driven by quality assessment- we can then differentiate the process (the how) and products (giving students choice and variety in how they can show what they learned).
- Differentiation is a convenient umbrella term that means different things to different people. Regardless of how one defines differentiation, there can be general consensus that teaching so all children can learn is a good thing.
- In general, I find providing choices for formative and summative assessments goes a long way toward allowing every child to demonstrate success. In addition, I try to provide multiple ways for the same information to be understood - visually, auditorially, kinesthetically, etc...The trick comes in combining brain-based, best-practices, differentiated instruction within the confines of a rigid, antiquated system which values numbers and standardized formal assessment. Teaching students how to think, how to problem-solve, how to attack difficult questions or problems, how to express their thoughts clearly and succinctly, and how they learn best, should be goals of all educators. When students are adequately armed with the above skills, they will be able to succeed in any situation or learning environment.
- When planning DI one must have a repertoire of teach strategies, know students, identify variety of instructional activities, and identify ways to assess.
There were several interesting points..
Differentiation is not specific to one group. In the past I have read and been told that differentiation applies only to "labeled" students. I even have a book on my shelf called Differentiated Instruction which stresses the needs for DI in the Special Education classroom. DI is not just for Special Ed, gifted, ESL, whatever label you want to apply. Its for all students.
Several people talked about interest surveys, inventories, studies....whatever you want to call them. While these might work they are not the best (in my opinion) indicators of how a student really learns or their particular learning style. The only way I found was to actually take time to observe my kids. Talk to them, ask them questions. Instead of handing them a survey on the first day of school why not just plain ask them how they learn best. If you are working with younger kids present various types of learning activities where they have to demonstrate different learning styles and see which kids gravitate toward which styles. The point is to get to know and connect with your students. Then you can understand how they learn best.
Can you meet the needs of every single student you teach? If you are teaching 5 kids, 10 kids even, probably. More than likely if you are a middle school or high school teacher you could be teaching over 100 kids. You have to realize that you can't do something different for everyone, no matter what your administration tells you. (I say that because mine always told me I had to provide different instruction for the over 130 students I taught. Oh and I only saw them for 50 mins a day. Yours may be telling you the same.) So what do you do? Shake things up. Once you understand your students (by connecting with them) you know one day you might need to do an activity that gets them up and moving around. And the next day an activity where the students have to create. And the next day an activity where the students are reading and discussing with their peers. You can't walk into the classroom day in and day out teaching exactly the same way. First, that's boring. Second, you are going to reach more students when you vary your instruction. Have fun with it! Dress up, sing, draw, kids love it when they see their teacher as human. (And they might just learn lots!)
Several participants brought up the fact that not only instruction needs to be differentiated but assessments as well. Student choice is an important part of any classroom, not just ones that are focused on DI. When doing and assignment or project. Offer student choice in the product. Wanna create a blog, great! Wanna write a rap, record it and post it to the class wiki? Awesome! Wanna create a logo using Photoshop? Super! You may not think of all the ways students could demonstrate their learning and you know, that's ok. Let the students tell you how they would like to demonstrate it. I bet they will show you, through their product how they like to learn.
Finally I want to share with you an amazing activity that one of my friends, Russ (@RussGoerend) is doing in his 6th grade Language Arts/Social Studies classroom. For me (and several others) I think it is an activity demonstrates what true Differentiated Instruction is while still adhering to the mandated curriculum. Head over to his blog and read more about Skills Based Journaling
What do you think? What do you do or have you seen in terms of DI that works? Is there such a think as DI? Should we even be concerned with it or is it something that is a major factor in the classroom?
Imaged used under a CC License from Flickr. View the original here.