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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