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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