Sunday, February 19, 2012

Differentiated Instruction Supported by Technological Innovation

Yesterday,  I wrote about the emerging consensus that differentiation instruction can maximize learning for more students.  Skeptics point out that differentiation is one of many movements that have run through education, and argue that eventually, the differentiation movement will subside.   I disagree.   Differentiation is a belated response to the fact that people are different.  They have different motivational levels; different intellects; different interests; differing tolerance for challenge; and different levels of persistence.  They arrive in school with vastly different levels of preparation.  They graduate to jobs with different demands, jobs of which now require employees who can learn new skills and master new tasks.

As I mentioned yesterday, differentiation of instruction places tremendous demands on teachers, parents and students.  If more than one level of learning is going on in the classroom, it means that the teacher is spending less time "teaching" each of those learning levels.   Without adequate support, the teacher may be expected to prepare more than one "lesson" for each of her elementary subjects.    Clearly, if we  try to differentiate instruction by delivering instruction in the same way as before, the differentiation movement is bound to fail.  

One commenter has argued that differentiated instruction is the wrong way to describe the goal, and that we should instead call it "differentiated learning."   That phrase signifies the increased level of responsibility that differentiation places on students to become managers of their own learning process.  If differentiation is going to work, it stands to reason, that in the earliest grades, we should develop students ability to learn how to learn.  Some people will identify strands of this idea in the Montissori  movement -- the idea that in the earliest grades students should develop a sense of responsibility to participate as a partner in the learning process.

The other fundamental change that is likely to support differentiation is the explosion of new technology that can support differentiated learning.  Some of this new technology comes out of the Home-School movement, which has had to find ways to support parents who are attempting to teach subjects that they may not know.   Much of this technology is springing out of a recognition by text-book publishers who have just begun to scratch the surface of accommodating textbooks to computers and the internet.  Universities are now developing internet based high level courses that allow distance learning for persons not enrolled at the university.  A company known as Khan Academy has created a powerful resource for the support of mathematics learning.  Khan academy boasts a library of over 2,600 videos covering everything from arithmetic to physics, finance, and history and 303 practice exercises, to help students learn what they want to learn,  at their own pace.  A website called Purple Math  provides a vast collection of resources that can help students who are struggling with algebra, or students who want to accept the challenge of learning algebra, before it is offered in school.  A company called Thinkwell  produces an array of college level courses, many of which provide a series of lectures delivered by outstanding university teachers.  All of these resources, if properly integrated into the classroom can make the differentiation process more palatable for teachers.
Links
Summary of Decision Network for Excellence
Washington Supreme Court Blog 
JvonKorff on Education, The Rose Decision 
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part I
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part II
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part III
Minnesota's School Finance System is Unconstitutional, Part IV

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Differentiated Instruction...Differentiated Learning

I've taken a few months' vacation from blog-posting because I was preparing for a trial in January.    Preparing for a trial is an all-consuming effort that occupies your workday, evenings and weekends.  It doesn't leave you with time and energy to engage in frivolous enterprises like blogging.

Now that I've recovered from  the trial, I can get back to blogging now and again.   I decided to write a bit about the importance of differentiated instruction in today's public education. An article on the Wisconsin teachers association (WEAC) website explains the importance of differentiated instruction.

A seventh grade boy spends his time in English class struggling to read at a beginner’s level. A girl at a nearby desk with her nose in the book could probably tackle a Harvard literature class. Seated in between is a youngster who’s a whiz at math but takes a whole period to write three English sentences because he’s much more comfortable in his native Spanish.  
As the author explains:
Teachers have faced this dilemma since the days of the one-room schoolhouse, which mixed 6- to 16-year-olds in the same space. A solution then and now, say Tomlinson and many educators, is differentiation. It’s a buzzword that’s seen a thousand iterations, from SRA reading kits to placing kids in the bluebird or buzzard reading group. It’s also a philosophy that sends shudders down the spines of some parents and others who doubt children can reach their highest potential in heterogeneous classrooms.
This issue, students at very different points of readiness, has been addressed in several  ways over the years.   Some schools and districts have grouped children for instruction exclusively by age, called heterogeneous classrooms and then have delivered the same instruction to everyone in the classroom, ready or not.   If you are in third grade, you're doing "third grade arithmetic" darn it.    If you are ahead of that, then you are going to be bored most of the time, or maybe doing so-called "enrichments," designed to keep you busy until the class is learning something that you don't know.  The problem with that approach is that some children are way ahead of the average, and other children are way behind.   In the last several decades, this gap seems to have grown substantially, so that a typical teacher may have a classroom, if it is grouped by age only, with a reading level gap of from two or three grade levels below and two or three grade levels above.  

One way of addressing this problem would be to group by academic level.    But in today's education, more and more, schools are attacking this gap by attempting to differentiate instruction.  The goal of differentiation is to challenge all students in the classroom.   If a 3d grade student is reading at a kindergarten level, teaching reading to that student with 3d grade instructional material is going to frustrate the student and lead the student to believe that she is not capable of reading.   If a 3d grade student is reading at a 7th grade level, giving that student a 3d grade reader is not only a waste of time, but it will lead that student to think of school as a boring waste of time where nothing interesting happens.  And worse, it causes the student to develop bad work habits, because it creates the impression that you can get by in life without hard work.

How in the world can one teacher differentiate in multiple subjects for all those kids?   The short answer is that it is difficult, and it is especially difficult in classrooms as the number of students increases.   There is a wide variety of literature written for teachers on various tactics to implement differentiation.  The tactics include:

  • Tiered assignments.  
  • Grouping students within the classroom
  • Grouping students for a particular subject and trading groups with other teachers
  • Using multiple textbooks or instructional resources 
  • Using a "begin and branch" approach to lessons 
  • Contract grading, in which students undertake different learning objectives
  • Use of  modern digital instructional materials that automatically differentiate based on student performance
  • Acceleration of advanced students for math or reading into another classroom delivering  higher level material
  • Teaching students to take responsibility for learning.  Its not really differentiated instruction, its "differentiated learning."  

Resources:

Is differentated Instruction Effective.
Differentiated Instruction Strategies