Saturday, April 12, 2008

What is differentiation?

After attending a class on "differentiation and inclusive classrooms" this past Wednesday, I was left still struggling with a question that one might think would have been answered by the class itself: What really is differentiation? That question is really a big way of asking a lot of other, more specific questions that I have swimming in my head: what does differentiation look like, how can I do more of it, am I already doing it in ways I'm not conscious of, is differentiation about the teacher or the learner (or both!), what factors inhibit effective differentiation, and so on and so on.

One thing that I took away from the class was the idea that behavior is a factor in differentiation. I think I understand that to mean that, for example, student-teacher interactions should be unique to each student - which, of course, they are inherently - and that our cognizance of how those interactions affect students (academically, socially, psychologically) is crucial to making the most of our relationships with them. This means knowing students well is part of differentiating our own behavior towards them and helping them direct their own behavior in productive, successful ways.

Does this seem accurate? I know I can point to examples in my own class of ways that I have used to motivate certain students that didn't work to motivate others, so is this differentiation? And I can recall the point when I started putting more pictures on my handouts because one of my failing students told me he remembers images better than words (he can still remember the names of painters and paintings we discussed two months ago, but he can never recall what year World War II ended). Is this differentiation, even though it's now a strategy I use with all students and not just him?

I'm really eager to get the answers to these questions. I don't know how to point to my own practice and say, "Yes, that is differentiation," or "This project/lesson/assignment needs to be better differentiated," so it's difficult to replicate what works well and/or revise what needs help.


Anonymous said...

Spencer, I think you have tapped into something here. Part of differentiation is just our day to day interactions with our students. We don't treat them all the same, and I really do think that that is a big part of what differentiation is -- tuning in to those subtle differences in how each student will learn best. For instance, I might sit down right next to one student for a solid ten minutes to help them on a problem, making sure I am being very clear and watching my pacing. But I might only lean over the shoulder of another student and offer them one sentence of advice on the same problem. In fact, I do that almost every day. We adjust how much help, hints, etc. that we give depending on what we think the student needs. We also adjust the manner in which we address them, trying to find which way seems to connect with them. I think we sometimes forget that that is differentiation because it is so ingrained in our practices. However, I think walking into a typical high school, we would not see those subtle adjustments, and then it would be very clear to us how much we actually do differentiate each day.

Right now, I am really struggling with the other end of differentiation -- Honors. My students who signed up for Honors credit do extra work, such as extra projects or SAT Subject Test prep. But I am not liking it at all. Because it is extra work, they do it outside of class, and then I cannot help them or see what they are doing. If I have them do their Honors work in class, I might be able to check in with them more, but then what would my other students do during that time? And if we are creating challenging curriculum in our classes, then why do I even need to offer Honors? (I know the answer to this one -- college applications.) And if Honors students are not challenged by my curriculum, then why are they even doing it? Couldn't they just do the Honors stuff instead?

I am beginning to think more and more that students should be doing different types of work in the same classroom. For instance, I could have some students doing really challenging Calculus, some students working on passing the CAHSEE, and so on. That way, instead of Honors doing just extra work, they are doing harder work. Instead of a student with an IEP doing less work, they are doing different work. The problem is that this is completely unmanageable as a teacher. There is no way I can write three different sets of curriculum. And who knows if this would even be a good solution?

Spencer Pforsich said...

Colleagues and I have talked about the issue of time before, along with that inkling that writing three different lesson plans would be the answer to "differentiated" classrooms. And we always joke about how great it would be if only we could clone ourselves. Of course none of us has time to write three sets of lessons for every class for every day, nor do I think we should have to. But it seems like a differentiated - yet sustainable - classroom practice might look more like a flexible environment, where we provide choices and empower students to make their own decisions.

For example, a couple months ago, I had a reading assignment that was important for probably 3/4 of my students because it was at their level and it was information I wanted them to have, but it was far too basic to inform or engage the other 1/4. When I asked those kids if they'd rather come in at lunch and have a conversation with me about another, much more challenging text I'd been saving, 5-6 students eagerly gave up their lunch period to do the alternative assignment - I think because this was a more "real" task in their eyes and, thus, worth doing. They took the time in class when they would have been reading with the rest of us to read the new text on their own.

I'm sure there are additional challenges in a math class that I don't have experience with. Even just the range of skills you're talking about (CAHSEE versus Calculus) seems daunting. But, as you said, why couldn't honors students do different work instead of more work? If you're designing additional assignments for them already, then you're already doing exactly what you said is the hardest part of differentiation - writing multiple assignments/lessons. So why not replace the assignments that are not challenging to your honors students with these other, "honors"-level ones?