Join the GOOGLE +Rubber Room Community

Thursday, February 5, 2015

On Differentiation: It's Not The Only Solution, But It's Part of It

My sixth graders sat up a little straighter when they saw the pink sheets in my hand. One asked, “Are those our verb contracts?” As I handed the papers out, students began calling out to each other. Questions like “What was your score on the pretest?” and “What does it say you need to work on?” rang through the room.
For many students, grammar is boring and irrelevant. In my classroom, much of what we do with grammar is embedded in our writing and reading; however, I handle some of the basics by giving pretests and then assigning activities and reviews for each student’s specific needs. This form of differentiation has worked well for my students and me for several years.
So I was surprised to read Dr. Jim Delisle’s column in EdWeek entitled "Differentiation Doesn’t Work."(link is external) This column shared Dr. Delisle's thoughts, along with supporting research, on why differentiation is NOT the cure for education's woes.
I'll admit—when I first read it, I found myself thinking, "Great. So what I've been encouraging and supporting colleagues in doing, as well as implementing myself, is really a waste of time and effort."
But here's the thing: it's not.
Ideally, in theory, differentiation is an amazing tool with powerful potential. Teachers identify the needs of their students and then plan tasks and activities at varying levels to meet the needs of the wide range of students in their rooms, and help those studentscontinue to learn and grow through these differentiated activities. This is the ideal.
However, the reality can be very different.
What Delisle was pointing out is that if we rely solely on differentiation to meet the needs of every single child, in every single classroom, we're doomed to failure in this effort. And he's exactly right. As Delisle notes, “Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.”
The reality is this: the spread of needs in general education classrooms is huge. Given the economic realities of the past eight or so years, most general education classrooms are larger, not smaller. Teachers know that in a class of 28, there is likely to be a huge range of skills, abilities, and needs. And it’s more challenging to implement strong differentiated lessons and activities for 28 or 30 kids than it is for 18 or 20.
Of course, most teachers are going to do their very best. That’s who we are. When kids need something, we do what we can to help meet that need—whether it’s adjusting or adapting classwork, or providing lunch money so they aren’t hungry all afternoon. Wework hard.
Those of us who have been striving to routinely implement differentiated strategies in our general education classrooms probably know better than any of us that this approach is not the cure-all for education’s woes. It can be useful for certain students and certain lessons, but it is not a “magic bullet” in education.
My point is this: if we view differentiation as the one cure, the one “fix” that will allow all students to grow and achieve their maximum potential, we’re going to frustrate ourselves, our colleagues, and our students.
However, there are times and places when it’s effective and useful. Classroom teachers need to carefully consider their students, their students' needs, the standards they're working with, and how best to bring all that together. There is research that supports the use of differentiation and points to some very specific situations where it is most effective, such as this study(link is external) about high-achieving third graders in low-achieving schools.
Resources and Supports:
There are resources and supports available to help teachers use differentiation as one of many strategies. And teachers don’t have to do all this on their own. In fact, a study(link is external) by the National Research Center on Gifted and Talented points out that it takes a great deal of time, support, and the right kind of educational community to make differentiation happen in a diverse middle school. Teachers who are still working to use differentiation with high-ability students can find some good suggestions and strategies here(link is external).
One of my colleagues whose expertise includes strategies for teaching students with Asperger's once told me, "Once you've met a child with Asperger's, you've met a child with Asperger's." Just because a particular set of strategies works with one student doesn't guarantee that set will work with another student.
That's not true only of students who have an Asperger's diagnosis—it’s true of all students. The strategies that work with one class and subject will not necessarily be as successful elsewhere. It takes time to set up differentiated activities and lessons, just as it takes time to get to know those students and their strengths and needs.
Perhaps the solution isn't to give up on differentiation. The solution may rest in how we structure our schools, classes, and teachers' work days. Perhaps with some innovative new thinking, we can arrive at solutions that will make differentiation and other teaching strategies more powerful and effective for students and their teachers. What do your experiences show you about differentiation? What do we need to make differentiation better?

1 Comment

Carl Draeger commented on February 4, 2015 at 10:55pm:

Tomlinson fan

I, too was flustered by Dr. Jim Delisle’s column in EdWeek. Why was I spending all this precious time so foolishly. Fortunately, Carol Ann Tomlinson wrote a passionate, yet graceful, rebuttal.  Ok, it was a bit more 'in your face'. Tomlinson wrote:
 She also included a zinger: 
I absolutely understand that differentiating instruction well is not easy. But then, I've never felt that teaching should be easy.
 You spoke so eloquently about who teachers are. You also asked the million dollar question about how can we do differentiating better. I am pretty sure that the million dollar question has an even more expensive answer. You said, "The solution may rest in how we structure our schools, classes, and teachers' work days." I think that the best answer lies in transformation of schools as opposed to a mere reformation. I don't care if you have the shiniest, longest-lasting and efficient telegraph ever made. No amount of re-engineering is going to make it relevant again. Similarly, the 19th century institution of public education doesn't need a face lift. It needs a resurrection.
The School District in which I work spent a hunk of money on creating and supporting a "Transformation Task Force" made up of community members, employee union representatives, teachers, and administrators. Our charge was to design the optimal school day for students and teachers. We were instructed to disregard costs and current contraints. We spent 2 years talking/dreaming/planning about 'what could be'. In the end, costs and current constraints ended the discussion. All we had to show for our time and effort was a shelf document.
The good news is that our teachers (myself included) felt empowered to have bolder conversations with other stakeholders. Although no physical changes are evident, the political culture is more open to innovation by the experts in education (teachers). It's my hope that this ending has yet to be written.
The Five-by-Five Approach to Differentiation Success
Two 9th grade boys kept falling asleep while reading. "If you're sleepy," we told them, "you could ask for a hall pass to get a quick drink of water, stand in the back of the room and read, or sit on the desk behind you as long as you are reading." They perked up at the chance to sit on the desks and were soon engrossed in their books.
"What can I do to move this student forward? Is he processing the concepts? Is her thinking being stretched?" As teachers who differentiate, we try to keep these questions in mind at all times. If we didn't, then our "sleepy" students would have wasted valuable reading time. For us (and for many teachers), differentiation is a philosophy. We believe that all students can learn and be productive, and we recognize that our job is to build on what each student brings to the classroom.
The following "Five-by-Five" approach to differentiation contains ideas that we have found effective in our classrooms. It is not a road map: It doesn't offer step-by-stepdirections. Instead we think of it as a compass: It is a set of strategies that guide our work with students.
Our first five points are about "setting the stage" for effective differentiation, while the other five highlight actions teachers can employ daily.

5 Ways to Set the Stage

 Assessing: At the start of the year (and, in fact, throughout the entire year), we want to find out more about where our students’ skills are, a process that informs our differentiation approach. Education researcher Robert Marzano has called formative assessment "one of the more powerful weapons in a teacher's arsenal." The word "assessment" comes from the Latin "assidere," which means "to sit beside." This origin is reflected in the process of formative assessment, as teachers work alongside students, evaluating evidence and making adjustments to teaching and learning.
More From the Authors on Differentiated Instruction
In his Classroom Q&A blog, Larry Ferlazzo collects and offers advice on differentiating instruction.
Katie Hull-Sypnieski will be presenting her ideas in our upcoming PD webinar Making Differentiated Instruction Work for You.
 Building Relationships: Marzano says positive relationships with students are a "keystone of effective teaching." Plenty ofother research concurs, as do we. The knowledge and trust we develop with individual students can make or break our differentiation efforts. For example, if our students are writing persuasive essays, is it necessary for all students to write about the same topic? Instead, if we know a struggling student is a football fan, why not suggest that she write about why her favorite team is better than another one? Or let's say we are working with a reluctant reader who loves video games. When assigning reading, why not identify a challenging book on that topic that he will feel self-motivated to push through and enjoy?
 Keeping Students Moving Forward: This priority drives everything we do with students—even small moves like inviting sleepy readers to sit on top of desks. Studies of "The Progress Principle" have found that a key to intrinsic motivation is feeling that you are making progress in meaningful work. We can reinforce intrinsic motivation by emphasizing small wins (and using catalysts like the ideas we include in this article).
 Teaching Life-Skills Lessons: Along with many of our colleagues, we front-load our school year with what we call "Life-Skills Lessons." These simple, engaging activities can help students see how it is in their interest (in both the short-term and long-term) to try their best at all times. For example, a lesson might highlight how the learning process physically alters the brain. (This particular lesson was eye-opening to a student who had claimed, "We're born smart or dumb and stay that way.") Other lessons might focus on self-control (including examining the famous "Marshmallow Test") or goal-setting. The publisher of Larry's most recent book has made these lessons plans, including hand-outs, available online for free (click on "sample pages"). As important as the lessons themselves are the frequent opportunities throughout the year when teachers and students can refer back to the concepts and reflect on their applicability.
 Creating a Community of Learners: We do a lesson at the beginning of the year in which students decide if they want to be a "Community Of Learners" or a "Classroom of Students." Working in side-by-side columns on an overhead or whiteboard, a teacher and students work together to outline the differences between the two options. For example, in a "classroom," people might laugh when others make mistakes, but in a "community," people are supported when they take risks. We also discuss the fact that people learn at different speeds, and in different ways, and discuss the meaning of the title of Rick Wormeli's book, Fair Isn't Always Equal. Time after time, our students have always chosen to be a "Community of Learners," and we refer back to this decision as we use differentiation strategies throughout the year.

5 Day-to-Day Actions

 Applying The Zeigarnik Effect: Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist, identified what came to be called the Zeigarnik Effect: Once we start doing something, we tend to want to finish it. What can this teach us about differentiation? When we know a task will be challenging for some students, we can present a variety of ways to get started: a menu of questions to answer, the option to create a drawing or visual representation of a concept, the option to begin the assignment working with a partner, etc. We can also encourage students to get started by just answering the first question or the easiest one.
 Differentiating Assignments: Students can complete the same types of mental tasks while producing different end products. Douglas Reeves describes this as “not uniformity of work, but similarity of proficiency." The idea is that students can gain proficiency even when completing different types of assignments or a different number of assignments (one big project vs. five smaller assignments). This happens in our classrooms during free reading time, when students practice using similar reading strategies while reading different books. We have some students reading 300-page books while others read a series of much shorter texts. As long as the level of text is challenging and students are using reading strategies to increase comprehension and drive analysis, then the length/genre/topic of the book doesn’t need to be uniform.
 Using Computers: Computers can allow students to work at their own pace and ability level, make mistakes in private, and stay engaged and motivated. Of course we're not suggesting that teachers plop their students in front of a computer and call it differentiation. However, there are many free sites that allow students to work independently at their skill level and let teachers check on their progress. Some sites, such as the Free Rice game and flash card tools even use "adaptive learning" to adjust future questions based on student progress. A word of caution: automated "teaching" on computers should only supplement high quality curriculum and instruction, not serve as a replacement for it.
 Praising Effort and Learning From Mistakes: One way to encourage all students to work at their highest level of productivity and intellectual capacity is to praise effort and not intelligence. Carol Dweck has published research on the benefits of praising students' effort versus their intelligence. She recommends teaching children the difference between a "growth mindset" (the belief that intelligence can be developed through effort and practice) and a "fixed mindset" (the belief that intelligence is innate). One way to develop students' "growth mindset" is to encourage them to risk making (and learning from) mistakes. Some students are afraid of making mistakes and being ridiculed for it. We want to turn that attitude on its head, helping them learn that, as Dweck says, we should instead "celebrate mistakes."
 Flexible Grouping: Some confuse differentiation with the practice of grouping students by ability levels and teaching those small groups. While this is sometimes necessary and valuable, it is also important that students have the opportunity to participate in interest-based groups, mixed ability level groups, student-choice groups, and other variations. As Carol Ann Tomlinson explains, "In a sense, the teacher is continually auditioning kids in different settings—and the students get to see how they can contribute in a variety of contexts."
We've found that keeping this "Five-by-Five" strategy in mind has helped keep our students and us moving in the right direction—forward!

No comments: