Posted by: darcymullin | November 4, 2012

Differentiate?


I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine, who is not an educator, about his daughter who goes to school in our area. She is a very bright girl, who is well above grade level in both reading and writing and is not challenged (or for that matter engaged) in the Language Arts that the class is doing.

His daughter is new to the school and they were unsure how to proceed. I encouraged my friend to have a conversation with the teacher and express his concerns. My friend went in and had a talk and came away encouraged. He explained to me that they teacher was open to challenging his daughter and was going to find time to let her pursue some of her creative endeavours in class…which is great.  He felt that it was the start and that there was more conversations to be had.

Talking to my friend and thinking about the meeting I have a few concerns about how effectively we respond and differentiate for our students?

First, the teacher said that his daughter was quiet, self motivated and didn’t draw a lot of attention to herself and that sometimes those kids tend to slip through the cracks. It’s true, as a teacher I have said the same thing. The kids with the biggest needs often take a majority of time and energy. No doubt they need it and we have to continue to work with them, but the quiet kid who is not challenged is also at risk for being disengaged. As a system, how do we respond when kids can’t do the work, or find the work too easy? How do we make sure everyone is on the edge of improvement?

It is a huge challenge – one that will take a huge investment of resources (money would be great, but in reality time) and reflection. I think it begins with flipping the current paradigm.  Too often as Will Richardson says, school is something that we often do or impose on kids.  We need to change it so that students are the drivers and control their learning. While seemingly a simple idea, the practicality of it is incredibly complex.

That said, I think it all starts with a conversation or a question:

What do I (we) do to make our classrooms focused on our students and their individual learning needs?  

At this point we don’t have to have an answer, but we should be willing to take the journey of discovery.

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Responses

  1. Yes, I believe this is an endeavour that represents a challenge, yet it is so necessary to being able to meet our students needs and become effective educators. Thank you for refreshing these thoughts on me.

  2. For bright, self-motivated kids, all schools need to do is get out of the way. Once you let go of the idea that everyone in the class should be learning the same thing at the same pace, anything is possible. Within one subject area like this LA example, that shouldn’t be too difficult — just give students more freedom to choose their materials (novels, songs, whatever), projects, and artifacts, especially if they’re more challenging that the stuff in the regular syllabus.

    I think differentiation gets more complicated when you throw the other subject areas into the mix. Science, math and even the social sciences have traditionally been taught as information domains to be transmitted to students. In the social sciences, project-based learning would seem to be the obvious fix, with plenty of leeway for the types of projects students could pursue. Science and math seem more skill-based, where it would seem to be smart to accurately assess the student’s current level and learning pace, then start them at the appropriate spot in the curriculum, even if that happens to be a grade or two ahead (or behind).

    One more note — I think parents and teachers often have low expectations of kids, and the kids meet those expectations. As long as the kid isn’t making trouble, the perception is that they’re doing fine. If we raise expectations to include self-actualization and the realization of potential, then a lot of kids are just killing time, and it’s such a waste. As a parent, I’m pondering this — how to expect more without becoming the prototypical squeaky wheel.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree with you assertions for the most part, but Socials and Science at the elementary and middle levels are still largely language based and do lend themselves to PBL.

    Classrooms where every student is on the edge of improvement should be our goal, but it is a lofty one for sure. I can say with certainty I am not there yet, but I am working toward it one day at a time. Not all teachers are comfortable giving up control in the classroom and letting the kids direct their learning and need support, time (and a little pressure) to make it happen.


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