Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The First Few Days: Before You Differentiate Instruction

A differentiated class will be most effective if at first you focus on creating a culture of learning. I teach high school 9-12, the bulk of my students are 9th-10th graders.  By this point in their school career they have undoubtedly developed beliefs about themselves and school.  This is why it is so imperative to spend the first few days of school (more days really as it is an ongoing effort) to lay the foundation of trust in the classroom.  

I begin by asking my students to define the word "respect" in small groups.  
In my 18 years of teaching I have learned that I cannot simply throw the word "respect" out as a coverall for a classroom expectation without first discussing what it means. Students come to us with different backgrounds and cultural beliefs.  What is respectful to one person may be seen as disrespectful to another.  It is important for each class to define what respect will represent when referenced in class.  
Students then continue working in small groups to discuss/define these phrases:
  • point chasing v *knowledge seeking 
  • fair is not always equal
*Note to self, if you are going to ask students what knowledge seeking looks like you better be pretty darn prepared to show them what they will be able to know and do for various levels of readiness while in your class (this is a blog post for another day). 

After groups discuss these phrase, I ask each small group to share out the group definitions.  During the class discussion I ask kids questions such as:  
  • "By this point in your life you have likely experienced what it is like to be given an assignment you are not ready for...how does this make you feel? 
  • "And certainly some of you have been given an assignment that is so easy you wonder why you even have to do it....how does that make you feel?"  
I also ensure I tell students:
  • "Fair is not always equal. Therefore what we do in this class will always be fair but what is fair to you may look different for the person next to you."
Undoubtedly, when I first give assignments that are different I will hear:
  •  "So this is the dumb assignment?" That soon goes away as my response is, 
    • "When someone has the ability to learn something new does this make them dumb?" 
      • They almost always answer "No" or something that equates to "no" and I reply with, 
        • "Then if you are learning by working through this assignment, then that must make you smart, right?" 
At this point I usually get raised eye brows or a shoulder shrug because struggling students have not thought of themselves this way before.  These conversations help foster growth mindsets and build trust between the teacher and student.

It takes time, patience and fairness to earn the trust of students...however, I ask the same of them for me:)  Keep your eye out for upcoming blog posts on how to build your framework for a differentiate class.  For resources to help you with the start of the school year, see below.


  • For my lesson, What's Your Definition of Fair: Out of the Mouthes of Babes, click HERE.
  • For access to my Google student survey, Who are you as a student and a learner?, click HERE for the Google form.  MAKE A COPY FOR YOURSELF BEFORE EDITING

Monday, June 15, 2015

Is it really "differentiated"?

George Couros is one of those speakers that draws you in and gets you thinking.  I have seen him 3 times now, twice in my district and once in Michigan.  He does what any great teacher should do, asks questions to get others to critically think.  And not surprisingly, he does just that with his question, "Is learning really 'differentiated' if people have different paths to all eventually get to the same point? What do you think?"  The comments that occur after that question is where things really start to take shape.  George simply provides the question to get things rolling and if you take a look at the feed you will notice he continues to ask questions to elicit more conversation.

What I love most about this question is it should have educators talking about meeting the needs of students! However, someone quickly points out that "differentiation" is "just a buzzword..." and this has me thinking of the many "buzzwords" of late:
  • 21st century learning
  • innovative & creative
  • global learning
  • digital citizenship
  • differentiated
  • data teams, data walls, data, data, data
  • PLCs
  • UbD, unpack, unwrap, standards, standards, standards
  • formative vs summative assessment, assessment, assessment
  • learning AS, OF, FOR understanding
  • grit
This blog post titled "Let's Drop the Education Buzzwords" by Levi Folly quotes Moilere:

What I have found in my doctoral research is we are indeed re-naming ideas that existed long before the 21st century.  In 1968 Benjamin S. Bloom developed "learning for mastery" and then in 1971 he shortened the name to "mastery learning" (Guskey, 2005).  In the mid-90's, Carol Ann Tomlinson started publishing articles with the word "differentiate" in the title and has since published a slew of books on the topic.  As we see, the wording or phraseology has morphed some over the years, but the idea of differentiation is not new to education.

Circling back to George's original question, 

"Is learning really 'differentiated' if people have different paths to all eventually get to the same point? What do you think?"

To answer this question, yes.  Yes I think learning is really differentiated when students have different paths to the same point.  The second half of George's question intrigues me, "to all eventually get to the same point?" Not once in my 18 years of teaching have ALL of my students ever ended the school year at the "SAME point".  In my blog post, Differentiated Instruction: Your GPS for Student Learning, I point out that "rarely do all students have the same starting and stopping points" even when trying to reach the same destination.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to differentiate is "to make (someone or something) different in some way".  In the case of teaching this means we make instruction different in some way to help students learn, be it helping struggling students learn the basics or advanced students learn more complex ways of applying learning. When teachers allow students the opportunity to learn different ways, then ALL students are afforded the opportunity to learn forward from their own levels of understanding, but the odds of all students ending the school year at the same point is slim to none.

And so regardless of what you want to call it, "learning for mastery", "mastery learning" or "differentiated instruction" I implore you to not dismiss it simply because it may be the current "buzzword".  The simple fact is students have different learning needs.  A one-size-fits-all approach to teaching only leaves students behind and solidifies fixed mindsets.  To put it simply, let me humanize this talk...give your students what they need to learn forward.

Differentiate. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/differentiate

Guskey, T. R. (2005). Formative classroom assessment and Benjamin S. Bloom: Theory, research, and implications. Online Submission, , April11-15.