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

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