Friday, July 21, 2017

Differentiation is NOT a Scary Word

I found How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson not only crammed with so many good ideas it will take me a book discussion to unpack it all, but also just straight up inspiring. Here's how it starts:

Teaching is difficult.

Teaching really well is profoundly difficult.

Even the best among us fall short of our professional aspirations regularly, and feel diminished in those moments.

Okay, so not inspiring yet, but she does let you know you're not alone.

And yet, for many, the work of teaching is also nourishing. It grows us as we grow the young people in our care. Each success is instructive. Each failure is instructive. We are challenged to become the best version of ourselves as we challenge our students to become their best as well.

One classroom reality that taxes our capacity to teach as we need and want to teach is the great variety of learners who surround us every day. They are mature and immature for their age.... They are excited by school and terrified by it. They suffer from poverty and from affluence. They are entitled, and they are without hope. They are socially adept and socially inept. They are intrigued, inspired, and shut down by very different topics or issues…. (vii)

And that's just the preface!

What is the answer to captivating every one of these varied children with the content, skills, and understandings we teach and in order to equip them to succeed in our classrooms and in life? Differentiation. What is differentiation? According to Tomlinson, who published the first edition of this book over 20 years ago and the third edition this year, “In a differentiated classroom, the teacher proactively plans and carries out varied approaches to content, process, and product in anticipation of and response to student differences in readiness, interest, and learning needs” (10). While the first half of the book is about the need for differentiated instruction and the role of the teacher, students, and learning environment in a differentiated classroom, that 3x3 grid—differentiating content, process, and product in response to students’ varied readiness, interest, and learning needs—is the second half of the book. 

There are so many ideas I’ll need a book discussion with my colleagues in the fall to unpack them all. But I did have a few overall responses:

I appreciate Tomlinson’s reminder that it’s not only English language learners and struggling learners who need attention, but also advanced learners and “kids in the middle.” Under-challenge for advanced learners can result in mental laziness, undeveloped study and coping skills, rewards found in grades rather than learning, risk avoidance, and failure to develop self-efficacy. And about kids in the middle she says the following: “...[T]he most devastating wound teachers and schools inflict on students is the wound of underestimation…. It’s easy to get lost in the great middle…. And yet, in among these kids who don’t seem extraordinary in any way, there are ones who need just a little more help to be able to soar academically. There are ones who need to find their voice but will remain mute without a teacher taking time to ask and to listen.… In the middle is pretty much the whole human condition. And every student in the middle is waiting for someone to signal that he is unique, that she is special, and that there is no achievement that is beyond reach. Teachers have the opportunity (and I would argue, the obligation) to be that someone as often as it is humanly possible to be” (30).

This does not mean, however, that every child needs his/her own individually tailored learning program--that would be overwhelming! To a certain extent, simply using a variety of instructional approaches enhances everyone’s opportunities to learn: “There is no exclusive ‘ELL’ strategy that doesn’t have utility for some other students as well, just as there is no exclusive strategy for students who struggle, who are advanced, or any student for that matter. What’s necessary is that teachers understand their students, be prepared with a broad repertoire of instructional approaches, and use those approaches in ways that support growth for particular students in particular contexts” (29).

I also appreciate Tomlinson's emphasis that “in order to provide good differentiated curriculum and instruction—whether we are talking about content, process, or product—you should first have good curriculum and instruction” (144). The most challenging and foundational prerequisite for differentiation is convincing students that your class goals are important to them, and that the activities you have designed will get them there. Otherwise you can spend hours designing tiered assignments, orbitals, and RAFT assessments, and some students will still ask how it will be graded and slip by with the minimum of investment.  

The good news is, good teaching is good teaching, however it is packaged. Don't fear the jargon "differentiation." There are common themes that have emerged from the three professional books I've read so far this summer. The three books are framed in very different ways by very different people. Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools is by a senior research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College is by a guy who runs an organization with the mission of starting and managing "outstanding urban public schools that close the achievement gap and prepare low-income scholars to graduate from college" (Lemov xxxi). How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms is by the guru of all differentiation. But each of them want school to be a place where every child is challenged, empowered, and equipped to learn and succeed. And each of them insist that in order for this to happen, the classroom should be a place of emotional safety and intellectual engagement, where both teacher and students know the learning goals are significant, know what they are, and know how the learning activities will help them get there.

Good teaching is pretty basic, and yet it's taken me a lifetime to grow into it--and I'm still growing. So grab a break this summer, fellow teachers--head for the beach, or the mountains, or the pool, or your family--but somewhere along the line, also grab one of these books--or a different one that will grow and challenge your teaching practice come the fall. Let's get ourselves ready to return rested to the great challenge of helping every kid in our classes experience more success and joy in learning.

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