Reflective Practice

Sep 5, 2013 by

I’ve been re-reading Scott McLeod and Chris Lehmann’s great book on What School Leaders Need to Know About Digital Technologies and Social Media. (You should really get a copy- it’s even on Kindle!) There is a great section on using blogging in conjunction with the classroom, and how it has helped instill a level of reflection for many students when used in conjunction with other projects.  The interactive nature and the feedback it can offer- not just from peers or a teacher, but from the world at large, seems to inspire more thought and reflection in students than I’ve ever seen with any other traditional classroom practice.

When I went to my first education conference and there were long periods built in for reflection, I wasn’t sure exactly how to use this time.  I had been so used to going from session to session, activity to activity, in school and in life, that having time set aside just to think and reflect and digest information seemed almost foreign.  Yet we know reflection is a way to consolidate learning, and to examine, perhaps in detail, what’s going well and what’s not, which enables us to, in theory, come up with new approaches to confounding problems.  But where do we teach this practice to students?  Do we make time for it in the school day?  Do we make time for it in the classroom?  Is it appropriate to start teaching it, and if so, when?  Is there a developmentally appropriate point to institute reflection in the classroom?

Most of the kids I know basically look at the test, paper, quiz, or project as the culmination of their learning.  Teachers would call this an assessment of mastery, and parents might call it a pain, especially if it involves more than one trip to the craft store.  What happens after the assessment or project is completed?  For most kids, they get their grade, or a paper back, and unless it is meant as a draft, very little review and reflection of the work is done.  The test is crammed into a folder or backpack, or if it’s a really good grade, displayed on the fridge, and that’s the end of it.

The only structured reflection time that went on in most of my schooling was either when I came home with a 90 on the test and my Dad asked where the other 10% was, and I felt dejected, or when I was sent to my room for some infraction and asked to “Think about what you did and we’ll talk later.”  This latter form of reflection merely involved me sitting in my room, reading, playing with toys or otherwise enjoying the quiet from the fight, and perhaps a small amount of time devoted to trying to guess what I had done wrong in my parent’s eyes and guess what they wanted to hear so I could get out of trouble and move on as soon as possible.  I suspect for many of you, this isn’t unfamiliar territory and the story hits pretty close to the mark.

However, after reading about the teachers using blogging in the classroom, I realized how perfect this is to instill reflection into school and learning.  Just as I’m using this post to reflect on my experiences, kids could use a blog, whether classroom or personal, as a more open journaling experience, with a wider (and possibly more accepting) audience.  They can trade ideas, and flesh out their thoughts as they commit them to writing rather than as fleeting clouds across their minds.  It will give extra practice in writing and developing style and voice, in a way that so many other “5 paragraph essay”  assignments just don’t.  When feedback between a teacher and the students is an open exchange, the trust grows, and the dialog is no longer just one on one but communal.

If we want students to truly improve over time, maybe spending time meaningfully not just “going over the test” but to start differentiating instruction and using assessments as diagnostic about what students have mastered and where they need more support would be more appropriate.  Maybe asking students to do small reflections about projects and assignments, giving feedback about what they thought went well, what was harder, and even give them reinforcement for honesty such as “I didn’t manage my time well on this assignment” .  This then allows an opportunity to give the time management  kids additional support or scaffolding on the next assignment, to help them grow until they are ready to fly solo then just blindly expecting them to do “better.”

I think incorporating reflection in a more meaningful way into our classrooms is critical to build the 21st century skills of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication we all say are important.  The trick is doing it on a consistent basis, and in a way that seems more coach like and less as an additional opportunity to criticize and bash a kid who is already struggling.  That’s why they never want to look at the paper with a sea of red- the assignment is over- it’s time to let the wound heal and try “better” next time.  But they won’t get better unless we can give them the tools hthey need- and they see the point in udsing these tools- to get a different result the next time.

Otherwise, we’re all just living the embodiment of this quote:

“The Definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

It’s Not The Gadget

Apr 2, 2013 by

I was having an interesting conversation over on the Edutopia forums about whether a school should consider spending limited resources on laptops or iPads.  It’s a reasonable question, bu tI think it’s the wrong question to ask.

The question should be: What are your goals?  What do you want to do?  Where are the best or easiest resources to deploy for this purpose?

A laptop or a desktop computer typically has a set of software installed on it, like Word, Excel, Powerpoint on it.  It can also access the internet, and often the internet in school has firewalls attached to restrict information accessed online.  A laptop tends to be bulkier than tablets, and often have limited battery life, making a power source an issue in classrooms.  They often take some time to warm up and open programs, which can ebb precious minutes from instruction time during a 45 minute class.

A chromebook is a laptop “lite”.  They have extended battery life, but not quite as much as most tablets.  They have the seven second startup, so much less lost time getting kids up and going on projects. They are basically large computer terminals, using the Chrome Browser.  If you are using lots of internet sites like Quia or other internet -based tools and apps, this could be a good solution.  It won’t be a great solution if you are looking to do a lot of multimedia production (ie. videos, audio, multimedia projects) which require a hard drive of sorts.  Some handy PC or tablet programs like Skitch, which allow you to do a screen capture and annotate it to make slides, How to instructions, or the like aren’t easy to do in a Chrome environment, as these tools are not available as Chrome Apps.  There are screen clip Chrome extensions and apps, but they don’t allow the annotation feature, at least at the moment.

Chromebooks encourage kids to learn to comp0se and save all their documents in the cloud via Google Drive (formerly Google Docs).  If kids have internet access at home, they should be able to access the stuff they have saved at home or frankly, on any internet- enabled device.  Learning about how to use the cloud and have universal access to their information and data is something kids will need to know and use from this point on in their lives, so this is a relevant skill to have.  Plus, guess what? No more losing hard drives, forgetting things at school, etc.  They have access wherever, whenever.  That’s something I think kids and teachers can get behind.

A tablet, and I’ll speak about the iPad here, since that’s the tablet we use most here, is a different form factor.

The iPad works for my kids in school as a laptop replacement. But it’s all about the apps.

The iPad is lightweight and portable, so it’s big advantage is the Backpack factor, especially if schools begin to transfer to e-textbooks.  You can add a keyboard for more demanding typing and note taking.  It is instant on, and it has a 10 hr battery life, meaning we’ve never really had a power issue at all during the school day. (Managing the backlighting also helps extend battery life.)

Because it is a “personal” device, it means the kids use it as a notebook, agenda book, ipod, game device and more.  They play music and listen to podcasts on the bus.  They use email.  But the productivity of the device depends on the apps as well.

They use Audionote to record lectures and take outline notes, which then can use later when studying, rehear what the teacher said about an assignment, etc. They use Flipside to create flashcards and other projects that require 3 x 5 cards (no losing the cards ever this way!)

iHomework and Inclass are used to keep homework and assignments organized, along with reminders to make sure they stay on track.
There are a ton of vocab builders and SAT apps, Khan Academy and more….
There’s Storylines and Comic Life to build stories;

Prezi and  Keynote to create presentations; Skitch to take and annotate any picture or screen capture.

I teach an after school program where kids are using iMovie and the “trailers” feature to create their own short movies, while learning about everything from storyboarding, to telling a visual story, to how music and video work together;

There’s a Goodreads app where kids can keep track of their reading and comment on their friend’s book reviews;

They can use iBooks or the Kindle or Nook app to read any available book and take notes in a book, highlight (and it’s searchable!)- this is a blessing for anyone with a kid who has a last minute assignment or forgot the copy of the novel they were supposed to be reading at school- for a price, you can download it and never worry about it again!

It also has internet access, but not all websites are mobile friendly at this point, and the iPad doesn’t like Flash.  It likes PDF’s just fine with iBooks, however.  This means if you are using sites that routinely use flash games, like Study Island, perhaps iPads are not the best choice.

Programs like Dropbox and Evernote also let kids put the things they create on the iPad into the Cloud, and let them access them from anywhere.   You can also take advantage of the heaps of innovative software to help kids do more writing in the classroom with apps like Maxjournal or Notes; design projects in Design Brief before executing projects, teaching them about the planning process at the same time.  You could use iThoughts HD, which is mindmapping software, or create podcasts and edit them right in Garage band.  With a broad app store, and with many educators creating lists of great apps, it’s not hard to find apps to do whatever you want to do, at a price that’s significantly less than a site license for school software.

Some of these apps come at a price.  They may not work as well when the tablet is not with the kid as their personal device, but it still in the “shared resource, school only” paradigm.  But if your school is thinking one to one, an ipad may not be a bad choice.

I think when we ask the question- What sorts of computers do we need?  The real questions we should ask are more  like these:

  1. Is this a shared or individual resource?
  2. Is this a resource with a price tag we can afford or encourage our families to purchase?
  3. Are we going web/cloud based, or do we still need things printed out regularly? (apps and airprint options work on Chromebooks and tablets when you really need things on paper.)
  4. Do email and digital documents work better or worse than paper in our school?  Can we transition to a paperless environment?
  5. What’s the power charging issue?  Is the logging in process disruptive to the flow of the classroom and are we losing time?
  6. Do we have security issues that are important?
  7. Do we believe kids should have their own computing devices, like they should have their own books, or do we look at them as a luxury item that only a few should have?
  8. Are we looking at the technology, or are we looking at the learning?  If it’s the learning, shouldn’t we get the device that is the easiest to use and is the most flexible?

When you are looking at making these decisions, it’s important to make sure you are asking all the questions, not just the obvious and surface ones.  In fact, think about checking out Chip and Dan Heath’s new book, Decisive, which has a lot of great things to say on making good decisions in any area.
Just remember, it’s never as much about the platform as it is about your imagination and employing the right tool for the right task.

Using Digital Tools to Enhance Learning

Feb 4, 2013 by

This past weekend, I spoke at a great event at the Joyner Library at Eastern Carolina University to school librarians and media directors about creating a digital toolbox.  Librarians and media directors need to be a bit like Home Depot or Lowe’s- a place where you can get just the right tool at the right time to help make your project successful.

I think we often think of librarians as something out of time- a bookish sort of person, with glasses and a stern demeanor, who is more interested in quiet than anything else.  The group of librarians I met were anything but- they are dynamic people, aching to help the teachers in their school, and eager to share the love of reading and learning with any child that crosses their path.

That being said, there are a gazillion new web tools and apps that are available, and it’s often difficult to figure out which ones are good and easy to use, and which ones might bring an extra added dimension to any classroom lesson or project.  With a hat tip to Brandon Lutz and his great 60 in 60 Presentations, I culled through my personal favorite web apps, sites I learned about from other educators at Educon, and some of Brandon’s favorites, to create a list of about 90 resources that are pretty easy to use.

Every tool, like every tool in the hardware store, has basic and advanced uses.  Wordle, for example, can be a way just to make great pictures, or it can be used as a way to analyze word frequency in a text, which might bring deeper understanding to students about anything from the repeating of a phrase for rhetorical purposes in a political speech, or help them better understand their own reliance on catch phrases.  With each of these tools, I suggest you try a few, play with them, and become familiar with them, and then attempt to incorporate them into lessons where they help deepen meaning rather than just become a digital way of doing yet another diorama or poster.

Finding and Using Tools to Develop Higher Order Thinking Skills

With evaluating any tool (and that goes for paper and pencil as well as computer or tech stuff) we need to look past the bells and whistles and think about:

-What’s the end goal of the project or assignment? (Backwards Design)

-What’s the best way for the student to demonstrate the learning or mastery of the subject matter?

-Is there a way we can use a digital tool to enhance the demonstration of outcomes?  Does using a digital tool make the project easier to accomplish, more interesting, engaging, or allow multiple modes of expression?

-Does the tool help differentiate the learning for different learning styles that might be difficult in a pen & paper task?

-Can the tool enhance accountability for the student and teacher? (Nothing gets lost in the cloud.)

-Can we shift some learning of independent tasks from classroom time to at home time?  (Flipping the classroom)

In the end, tools should, by their nature, make a job easier or faster.  If it doesn’t, why use it?  If we use the excuse “Well, kids have to learn all this computer stuff, so let me just bolt on some technology here…” we tend to teach them to use a tool poorly, and many may not (ever) see the point.  For example, when one teacher, about 6 years ago, asked one of my kids to do a power point presentation, making sure to use a minimum of 5-6 sentences per slide, I got pretty upset.  That’s a task that should really be an outline, or note cards.  A Power point or any slide presentation, should be there to enhance the understanding and meaning of what is being said, and act, perhaps, as visual cue cards for the presenter to stay on track.   After all, who wants to go to a lecture and watch someone read their slides?


If you use these resources, please let me know what you think in the comments!

You can download the handouts for my presentation here: Digital Toolbox for Educators

The slides are also available on Slideshare, or you can see them below:

Education Reform

Jan 9, 2013 by

I saw the Frontline documentary on Michelle Rhee last night, and it left me with as many questions as answers.

Public education is tricky because it’s non-uniform.  School districts vary based on location, funding, resources, demographics- you name it.  As much as we would like it to be standard and consistent, the reality is quite different.  For example, our local middle school is a modern building, with smart boards in every classroom.  Technology  is used in almost every aspect of learning, from a digital grade book to online assessments, to students submitting multimedia projects via email and dropbox. The students come from a wide variety of homes, ranging from kids of professionals to those of migrant workers.  A middle school I visited in North Carolina this fall had almost 100% minority population, where there were 4 smart boards in the whole school, and one cart of laptops that were held for the sole use of Title I students, and as a result, were rarely used at all.   Teachers often did not assign homework, because many of their students were spending the evenings caring for parents and siblings, and legitimately could not be counted on doing work outside the classroom according to the teachers.

In the world of national standards, all the students in both schools are to be held to the same standard of learning, and the teachers to the same level of achievement for their students.  This makes sense, in that once all these students hit the real world, they will all be competing for the same spots in college or the job market with students from more affluent and academically challenging environments.  How do we make sure that the kids in this particular North Carolina school receive an education that will enable them to effectively compete with kids from our local school?  How do we start to attack the problem?

Michelle Rhee, according to the Frontline documentary, found all sorts of problems in the DC schools.  She set a goal of doing what was best for students, and keeping their interest at heart, which ended up involving getting rid of a lot of teachers and principals that were deemed to be under-performing, and closing schools with low enrollment.  Closing schools and consolidating in order to avoid wasting money on building expenses and duplicate resources (including personnel) makes logical sense- especially when it provides additional funds for all the students in the District in the bargain.  That’s simply good management, but it’s painful, since it meant jobs were eliminated and some kids would no longer be going to their neighborhood school.

The Gates Foundation released a report this week addressing what it has found to be potential better metrics for teacher evaluation.   They also have released some metrics on personalized learning, which reflects much of what we discuss here on differentiating instruction:

There is a small but growing effort to rethink fundamental aspects of our current system. The central idea is that the system should be designed not for uniformity, but instead to meet every student’s individual needs.  At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we call this a shift to personalized learning. We are particularly interested in whole-school models that incorporate each of the following principles:

  • Student Centered: designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  • High Expectations: committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  • Self-Pacing & Mastery-Based Credit: enables students to move at their own optimal pace, and receive credit when they can demonstrate mastery of the material
  • Blended Instruction: optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  • Student Ownership: empowers students with skills, information and tools they need to manage their own learning
  • Financial Sustainability: sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
  • Scalable: designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact


It’s clear that effective teaching requires not only a thorough knowledge of the curriculum, but a sense of the students and connecting with them to make learning vibrant and exciting.  That’s not always an easy task.

Even in the after school program where I volunteer, I know that I get better at running my class each time I do it, and that it requires reflection, asking the students about what went well and what didn’t, and considering what to tweek and try differently the next time.  I know that the mix of students I get also changes what I can do and I need to be adaptive to student needs, not just wedded to my idea of a utopian curriculum.  The overall critical points need to be taught, but the order and the method I choose might vary, depending on the day and the mood of the kids, as well as whether all the tech is working properly.  The key, I’ve found, is to use my base knowledge and my general plan as a base or launch pad for the actual teaching that is done, which involves a bit of improv.   From talking with academic full time teachers, they also say that the lesson plan is like any battle plan- it never fully survives contact with the enemy, as they say in the military- the enemy gets a say as well, or in this case, the students get a vote in how the lesson is going to go, and how much of the plan gets executed as written or needs to flex as needed.

This being said, metrics on judging teaching needs to be part “the plan” and another part “the execution” along with outcomes- how well did the kids actually absorb what you were trying to teach them?  How effective are they at applying that knowledge to a new and novel situation?

Teachers don’t graduate from school with all these skills in place.  They need on the job mentoring, and continuing education.  They need a place where they can ask questions, share tips and tricks, and engage with colleagues in a safe environment, where they can admit what’s going well and where they may have challenges, without always feeling like their job is on the line if they admit any weakness.  But at the same time, kids deserve to be taught by someone who knows what they’re doing, just like every patient deserves good medical care, even from a doctor who just finished their residency.  We know these teachers and doctors will get better the more experience they have, but helping them learn to be better requires acknowledgement they aren’t perfect, just like no student or patient is perfect as well.

I admire Michelle Rhee for making some tough decisions and not running a popularity contest.  I admire her for putting kids first, but part of that is also treating the adults in charge of the student’s learning with compassion and  guidance as well as consequences for non-performance.

Teacher’s unions have often defended teachers who have been shown to be ineffective, based on longevity, tenure, or other reasons, and that’s clearly not always appropriate.  Michelle Rhee’s monetary incentives to teachers and schools for achievement improvements may very well have lead to cheating, in order for the  adults in the game to profit from those outcomes.  Yet if the incentives were placed differently- instead of cash bonuses in every teacher pocket, could the incentives be more “team based” in terms of more resources for the students and schools for higher achievement?  Could the incentives be placed in such a way everyone in the school benefitted instead of just the teachers or administrators, especially since it was based on student achievement and what the students themselves accomplished?  I think you might still find teachers willing to tamper with results if it meant a laptop for every student in the school, but probably less frequently than if it meant an extra $8,000 in their paycheck.

We ask much more of teachers now than in the past.  Some teachers have even lost their lives protecting their students, and if we’re going to ask for that level of commitment, we had better learn to respect them and compensate them for that difficult work.  The perceived harshness of Michelle Rhee, even in the name of progress and reform, caused as many problems as she tried to solve.  Perhaps working with appropriate carrots and sticks is really the best way to work towards education reform, rather than taking a slash and burn approach, no matter how much we may all need a real wake up call.

And for the rest of us out there, including myself, who assume we know everything about education because we went to school ourselves, we have to be patient and realize that solving the education issues in our Country may be much more personalized per school, per district, and per state than pushed down in a top down approach from the Department of Education.


Watch the Frontline special below:


Watch The Education of Michelle Rhee on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Understanding Motivation

Oct 24, 2012 by

I think one of the most important questions in education is how to motivate kids to learn and perform in school.  We spend a lot of time complaining about kid’s lack of motivation to do what we want, and a lot of money trying to find schemes, games or other things to induce or woo them into learning.  However, if you understand more about motivation and motivational theory, this problem becomes much easier to crack.

I am a huge fan of Rick LaVoie’s book, “The Motivation Breakthrough, 6 secrets to turning on the tuned out child”, and it’s helped me reframe how I look at students and understand how to help them engage in tasks, or how to set tasks that work with them, rather than against their base level interests.

Likewise, I urge you to take a look at the video below.  It’s an RSA Animate. The RSA, a British group very much like TED, dedicated to encouraging Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce- takes talks by fantastic speakers- this one is by Daniel Pink- and add drawing “animations/illustrations” to help highlight aspects of the talk.  The process of illustrating a talk is fascinating in and of itself, and always gives me ideas on how to illustrate points I’m making in presentations.  This talk about motivation is fascinating, and well worth your time- I urge you to give it a look.

Differentiation is Doable

Oct 10, 2012 by

When I speak with teachers about starting to incorporate differentiated instruction and personalized learning into their teaching, some often look at it as something that seems logical and looks good on paper, but they are overwhelmed with incorporating it into their teaching, aren’t sure where to begin, or that the effort will be worth the results.  As I’ve been thinking about how to make this easier for teachers to understand, I’ve been trying to make analogies that make the process easier to understand.

Let’s take medicine as a comparison.

Each patient a doctor sees is an individual.  They need care based on whatever their current disease or problem might be, when they walk in the door, taking their history, current medicines, family history and other things into account, including the patient’s level of compliance with past treatments, when offering new therapies or treatments, especially for chronic conditions.

A doctor may order a bunch of tests for the patient as well.  These tests spew back a bunch of numbers, but unless they are put into context  based on previous test results, along with  where the numbers fit into a general range  considered Normal, the numbers themselves have little context and meaning about whether a patient is getting healthier or sicker.

Doctors learn in school how to treat disease, and that the human body, on the whole, tends to “break” in predictable patterns.  There are anomalies and rare diseases of course, but most of the time, illness follows a fairly predictable course, and standard treatments work well for the majority of patients, but certainly not all of them.  This is when personal history, family history, sensitivities or allergies to certain medicines and the like come into play, and if not taken into account, normal treatment can have disastrous outcomes  for that individual.

Now let’s compare this to teaching.

Each student (and teacher) are individuals.  Most kids learn how to read with standard curriculum, but some students, based on the way their brains process sound/symbol relationships, struggle more with learning to read- we often call this dyslexia.  However, we also know that some reading programs, like Orton-Gillingham based programs, do a great job teaching kids who have struggled learning to read, truly master the skill.  Orton Gillingham and its approach to helping students learn to read require a bit more one on one or small group instruction, but this approach and customization for a few students of the whole group teaching, means the difference between success and failure for these students.

Likewise, there are students in the classroom, who, based on prior knowledge and family background, have a wider set of experiences and may breeze through certain lessons, yet struggle in others where they have no such background to draw from.  These students can look brilliant one day and dull the next, yet their response to the teaching in the classroom that’s often one-size fits all varies dramatically based on what they bring to the table already.

Test scores, whether we’re talking about State and national tests or the results of the last spelling quiz are data points that help make up a larger picture of a child’s growth and development.  While the answer to each question on a test is like your Hematocrit, White Blood Cell Count or Creatinine score on a blood test, the answers all together, especially when compared to the results from prior tests, tell a larger narrative of how that child is learning and progressing, as well as what areas might need more support or attention.

Differentiation in the classroom is about giving kids what they need, when they need it.  It’s about being responsive, and maybe even a bit intuitive about a kid’s needs, and it does place a burden on really getting to know the kids on the teacher.  It’s also about spotting trends in a kid’s learning, having a sense of when they might struggle a bit more and encourage them to practice just a bit more in that area.  It’s about knowing when to let them go and explore, trying new things, and when to scaffold certain skills a bit more, so they are ready for the next challenge.

None of this is expensive, or requires special tools or even special training- It’s what we might just refer to as basic good teaching and mentoring.  But let’s not white wash it either- it does require engagement and investment of time.  It does require teachers to track students and look for patterns in their learning, even year to year.  Knowing that Carol or Bob seem always to have a slump in mid-November, for example, night help next year’s teacher prepare for that, or be more sensitive if they know this is the one month out of the year when the child’s Mom or Dad is always away from home, and they need a little more attention and encouragement.  Tools and apps that make keeping records easier, ranging from e-portfolios to apps that that teachers make notes during the day on a student’s performance, can certainly be helpful and help folks spot trends in the data.  What’s even more powerful is sharing that data with students and parents, so they know when to look for rough patches and how to prevent them, or prepare to spend a little more time to get through to the next level.

We expect doctors to be able to treat humans and patients as a group, but still make allowances for individuals and provide prescriptive care.  Quick check ins with students for a minute or two, even once a week,  sends a message that the teacher cares, and that, in and of itself, goes a long way for a student that may be feeling lost or alone or not understanding what the big picture might be.  A few minutes being treated as the only student, where they can be heard, goes a long way towards fostering student engagement the rest of the time.  It’s like having those few minutes alone with your doctor, where you can tell him more about what’s going on in your world, that can make all the difference in how you are treated and understood.

Don’t our students deserve this care?  Don’t you want to be the person that makes them feel valuable and worth while, even if it’s only every so often?  These small moments where we feel we matter sustain us through all those times we feel we’re just another number in life.

While much of making differentiation a reality also involves setting tasks and projects that let a student demonstrate their true mastery of their learning, the most important part of differentiation is the personalization portion- where each student feels like a valued member of a learning community, where they have something to contribute, and it’s up to teachers, as leaders of that classroom, to set this tone.

You can do it.  Other professions do it every day- doctors, lawyers, hairdressers, even your dry cleaner- you can, too.  Kids are people, not widgets on a conveyor line, and needed to be treated as unique, not uniform, to truly thrive.

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Differentiation becomes Personal

Apr 11, 2012 by

Like most things in life, many things sound great in theory, but when it becomes personal, it takes on new dimensions.

As most of you know, I have two kids, currently a high school junior and an eighth grader.  Both kids have very different educational needs, and would likely fall into the “twice exceptional category”, being bright but also having (relatively) minor learning disabilities.  Most of the time, the IEP’s and 504 plans are there as ground rules, which helps everyone get to know my kids and rarely requires what I would call monitoring or enforcement of the provisions.

This past month, we’ve had an issue with my older son writing a formal term paper, essentially for the first time.  The teacher set a very detailed rubric, where many of the items such as using 3 x 5 cards to organize the material, is simply a disaster waiting to happen for my son.  The cards are required to be hand written, and his handwriting is really illegible to even himself, which is why he types notes in class.  He opted to use a flash-card app on his iPad, but ran into problems with the teacher being largely unwilling to review the work unless it was in printed form, and the app does not allow printing.    The first version of the paper was a disaster, regardless, and we’re going back and redoing the process from scratch.

What I’m learning is that many of the things we advocate in the Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists are good practice for kids at every level of learning, and can help avoid those moments in school that would otherwise be classified disastrous for everyone involved.  Instead of a kid spending time doing research but not effectively pinning down a central thesis, and a teacher resistant to review information in anything other than prescribed form, a simple adaptation of organizing information to a format that’s most effective for the student solves the problem.  While I understand trying to teach a student a new way of approaching a complex and layered project, I’m not sure 3 x 5 cards are the only way to get there, especially for kids challenged with material management and organization to begin with.

It’s amazing what a little time and compassion can do for both a kid and a teacher.  Some teachers approach flexibility as giving up control or inviting a free for all.  However, simply giving kids, say, three choices for turning in notes and an outline would let students choose what works best for them, and after all, if the carry-over message is to prepare them for college and writing reports for work, finding the best way to work with their strengths provides them a much more effective template than the one way the teacher likes best.

Differentiation is about helping kids capitalize on their strengths and learn the most they can in any classroom.  It promotes taking responsibility for themselves as learners, and expressing the depth of their understanding as best they can.  The more we encourage kids to think deeper, make connections and go beyond surface thinking, the better.  Unfortunately, most of the testing I see tends to be focused on “filling in the bubble” and having just enough knowledge to recognize the right answer.  That’s probably not very intellectually satisfying to the teacher or the student.  Instead, finding ways that students can meet the end objective but take their own path there, (with supervision along the way and appropriate scaffolding, Of course) will give students more carry-over skills by understanding their own learning strengths better as well as the content of the assignment.

I often think we don’t do enough in schools, as currently designed, to help our students understand and explore themselves as students and scholars.  We may provide templates for doing projects, but we don’t explain that these templates can carry over into other subject matter or even into real life.  We don’t instill a sense of the process being as important as the outcome, and part of the process is not the pathway, but how you construct the pathway itself.   It’s like forging a path through the woods rather than travelling down pre-made trails.  And it’s only by, in a more formal way, helping our kids understand the learning process alongside content that they’ll grow to understand the interconnectedness of both.

In isolation, many of the tasks teachers set students can look pointless and dull.  I get this response when I talk to small businesses and encourage all of them to go through the formal process or writing or re-writing a business plan.  This exercise is not only useful to give to a bank or investors; it’s a process that’s incredibly useful to have you think through your business in a very systematic way, and will help you spot problems, weaknesses, strengths, and make connections you may never have done otherwise.  Likewise, having kids work through a rubric or prescribed plan of attack for a large project, like a term paper, may help them see strengths and weaknesses in their project and develop a stronger point of view as well as depth of understanding.  By explaining this to them, there’s going to be a lot more willingness to take the time to work through suggested methods, but also the ability to adapt, say, handwriting for digital tools, or seek out additional resources to clarify your subject.  You may think you want to write about pollination, for example, but end up writing more specifically about bees and colony collapse syndrome.  These things are in the same neighborhood, but they’re very different subjects in terms of the depth of knowledge and connections required to pull it off.

I hope by the end of this process, my son becomes a better writer.  I know he’s learning a lot about his subject area, and a lot about himself as a learner through the process.  The end product will be much more engaging and interesting for everyone, but most importantly, himself.  And that’s the end goal of differentiation.  We hope to help teachers walk students meaningfully through the process of learning, no matter what the subject area, and be able to engage with the material and extract the most meaningful knowledge out of it.

Memorizing facts, while still useful in math, is less useful in the age of the internet.  Knowing what to do with the information at hand, and transforming it into true knowledge and wisdom- that requires developing what we call 21st century skills of critical thinking, creativity, collaborating and communicating.  In reality, we know that these skills have always been what separates out most students- those that are content with surface knowledge and those that dig deep and really immerse themselves in learning.  Now that teachers and schools are no loner the sole gateway for information and education, the value add required is not just parsing out factoids, but it’s making kids care about the task at hand and making it meaningful in a way we didn’t worry about so much when the jobs at the other end were factory based.  We need people able to take the wealth of information at hand and transform it into new ideas, by knowing how to engage deeply with a topic and solve problems.  And that’s the end goal with differentiation and understanding by design.  It’s about making learning count.

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