As I look at Differentiated and Personalized Instruction, I see it as a philosophical approach to teaching. It requires that learning become more student centered, and even student-directed, which is a big cultural shift in most classrooms. So many classrooms remain “Captain of the ship” oriented, where command and control is valued over interaction.
Likewise, teachers remark about how administrator 10 minute observations often seem silly or not reflective of what happens most days in the classroom. Teachers feel comments are not particularly helpful nor do they seem to offer any mentoring guidance that the teacher finds useful in day to day practice. The end all and be all seems to be evaluation by pupil performance, and the interest in instructional methods starts and ends there.
But I worry students, like my sons, are losing the joy that learning can be. Creativity is undervalued. Collaboration is undervalued. Kids are merely widgets moving through the system rather than people. And in part, this is because the teachers and administrators as well are being treated as objects rather than people by every part of the system. This cog is either doing its job or needs to be replaced. But in reality, each member of the system can perform better when its “gears” mesh better with the other parts of the system, and it doesn’t have to do all the work alone.
It’s the reason setting a positive culture in your classroom and in your school is critical to success- probably even more so than test prep. Let’s take the psychological phenomenon of priming as an example. If kids and teachers feel valued and like they are doing good work every day, they will naturally feel more competent when it comes to test time. Confidence and a belief in success is perhaps not as important to the outcome as the actual knowledge, but feeling like the task ahead is manageable and not hopeless is key to everyone’s engagement in the process and ultimate accomplishments.
The heart of making differentiated instruction work is creating an environment of trust and collaboration- creating a classroom that values mutual respect and cooperation- a community. The classroom should function like a family. Sometimes, it may be more dysfunctional than we’d like, but striving for an environment where everyone feels valued is simply a more humane environment that will foster and facilitate learning even without a lot of other changes.
If there’s one thing I could wish for all of our schools, it would be that they become a much more compassionate and community oriented institution, where competition of individuals for a few precious resources takes a back seat to making sure everyone gets what they need rather than just what they want. It’s a subtle shift, but critical. As long as we continue to push schools to be factories of knowledge cramming, we lose more and more of the humanity we need to instill in our kids as well as our teachers. A loss of this sort is less tangible than test scores, but all the more devastating by the wreckage it leaves in its wake. As Seth Godin said recently, we have to Stop Stealing Dreams and start learning how to create schools that foster them instead.
Other priming links worth your time: