Thursday, January 27, 2011

An Easy "Differentiated Instruction" Hack

Yesterday I had the opportunity to participate in a professional development session with a professor that specializes in instructional differentiation.  The concept is great- tailor education to individual learners.  The implementation, unfortunately, often falls short.

This is not my first exposure to differentiation.  While working on my undergrad degree, I was a teaching assistant for a psychology professor.  She taught me more about teaching than my education classes combined.  Her approach was simple: Start with your students.  

Everything flows through them.  Before tackling issues like curriculum, classroom management, or any of the myriad of other things we do as teachers, we must consider the characteristics of the individuals.  Specifically, what excites each student.  Understand this and you will unlock the key to an unlimited reservoir of enthusiasm.  

The professor that gave the presentation mentioned a pet-peeve statistic I hear in education on a frequent basis- humans have an attention span of x minutes, where x equals a very short time.  In this case, I think it was five or six minutes.  Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of human behavior will understand that this is an average; attention capacity is directly correlated to interest.  As interest increases, so does attention span.  

Teachers spend a tremendous amount of time and effort designing lessons that include a great deal of variety.  This is a good thing; it is the very idea of differentiation.  However, they are often ineffective for a simple reason- the teacher is adding variety without first considering the audience.  

Teachers have a tendency to begin planning with the curriculum in mind.  This is logical as teaching the curriculum is our primary responsibility.  Once teachers determine what should be taught, they try to figure out effective methods to deliver the curriculum to their students.  Great teachers use variety that reaches wide range of students.  Not so great teachers pick a method that aims at the middle of the bell curve, thus capturing as many kids as possible while largely ignoring the exceptions at both ends.  Both have serious flaws.

Adding variety takes a lot of planning time.  While this is a great short-term solution, it is not sustainable.  It is simply not possible for a teacher to plan for several hours every day for the length of their career.  Burn-out is inevitable.

Aiming toward the middle is much easier, but should not be an option.  The idea that any student will be left behind because of lesson plan design is inexcusable. 

What is a teacher to do?  Get to know your students.  Know what they like.  Know what they dislike.  Pay attention to their body language when discussing random topics.  Pay attention to the things they talk about with each other/  Pay attention to the subtext of the questions they ask you.  Above all, learn to recognize when they are are engaged and when they are checked out.  Trust your instincts.  This personal knowledge of your students should be your starting point to lesson design.

Once you gain this knowledge, you will be able to accurately predict the type of lessons that will work with certain students.  More importantly, you will know which types of lessons will not work with particular students.  This knowledge makes lesson planning MUCH easier.

Once you gain this knowledge, THEN look at the curriculum.  Use your knowledge of students to determine how you can teach each student this material.  You'll be surprised to find two or three different methods are often sufficient to reach everyone.  

Once you figure out how to teach your students, only then should you consider what you will teach them.  The material is irrelevant unless the vehicle of delivery is effective.

This idea can be applied to every aspect of the classroom.  Now you know how each kid learns, how you are going to teach them, and what you are going to teach.  The last step is determining how you will assess thier progress.

I was excited by our presenter's thoughts on assessment.  Despite the use of the terms "formative" and "summative" assessment (in my opinion, education-speak is a form of verbal masturbation... we use it to feel good and elevate ourselves in self-perceived importance), she reinforced the idea that assessment should be a tool to help teachers fine-tune instruction.  This is incredibly important, and I will address the issue in a future post.

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