Sunday, November 20, 2011

Where I Stand on Differentiated Instruction

Call me part of the digital education revolution, but I am just going to say it …. You need access to technology in order to more effectively differentiate instruction.

To ask teachers to meet the needs of all learners using differentiated worksheets, different textbooks, flexible grouping -- which by the way simply translates into homogeneous grouping within the same classroom-- with the teacher running around the room like an athlete on the track team trying to give some modicum of individual attention to every student and/or every group, is just plain impossible.  And more importantly, the kids are not getting what they need. They are not really being challenged or helped to become self-directed learners because we are still working way too hard to construct a gamut of appropriate multiple learning activities for them.

 To “differentiate” means to make different.

And in most classrooms in most schools, we are doing very little differently. We are pretty much doing the same thing we have been doing for the last 50 years; probably longer.

If you want to get an idea of the complexity of differentiating instruction, I would invite you to explore the Universal Design for Learning  website at and take a look at the model lesson plans. Consider the level of expertise and time that would be involved with thinking through the differentiated activities, testing them out, redesigning the lesson and reflecting on the student outcomes. And keep in mind that these are single lessons. Think about an entire school year and an entire course of study. Think about the fact that even the most talented, and dedicated “uber” teachers would occasionally, when they are not in their classrooms, actually need some time to …..perhaps ….have a life.  Absent of spending every waking hour working with colleagues to design these kinds of lessons for ever single class and every single student; I think it is fair to say that we are asking a lot. 

I’m a big proponent of differentiation, but I also believe in the power of technology. And I believe it is the means by which we can most effectively help teachers differentiate instruction to its fullest degree. 

Picture this:

·         Teachers use social networks to engage students with their peers in other schools, in other states, in other countries and around the globe to share their ideas and their work.
·         We “flat out” ban worksheets …. period ….no more worksheets projected on the SMART Boards, no more paper worksheets, electronic worksheets …..can we just try this? Maybe start with a “No Worksheet Week” and see what happens?
·         Teachers and students embrace and take risks with project based learning (project based learning is synonymous with learning in depth). We educate and actively engage parents about project based learning and what they can expect and not expect to see in this kind of learning environment. (These activities are designed to answer a question or solve a problem and generally reflect the types of “lifewide” learning and work people do in the everyday world outside the classroom).
·         As a community we are willing to commit resources to teacher professional development that helps them to understand inquiry based lesson design, and then support them as they engage in an inquiry based instructional approach. (An old adage states: "Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand." The last part of this statement is the essence of inquiry based learning)
·         Teachers talking to parents and parents talking to teachers about instruction, having conversations where EVERYONE – teachers, administrators, parents and students --are learners knowing that they are valued equally in the learning community.
·         Parents letting go of the “great idea, love risk-taking” as long as it is with someone else’s child philosophy; this attitude hinders teachers from trying new and innovative strategies.

So back to why I think that differentiation is more and more dependent on technology.  In his paper for the Centre for Strategic Education  Michael Fullan, Professor Emeritus of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto says, “Teachers need to get grounded in instruction, so that they can figure out WITH students how to best engage technology.”  He believes that technology can be a dramatic accelerator if we put instruction and skilled motivated teachers and students in the lead.

Kids and teachers need to be able to access the internet in any classroom in our buildings. Both students and teachers must learn to effectively leverage the power of social networks.  True exploration with inquiry involves students developing personal learning networks where they can access on-the-job professionals and academic mentors. Project based learning in its most highly evolved state requires students to work together in groups, and work as a team to design and demonstrate their understanding of central concepts and principles of a discipline. Quite frankly, they will probably facilitate this process most readily on Facebook. 

Whether students bring their own devices to school and are permitted to use them in the classroom; whether we give teachers tablet computers so that they can have their resources always in hand; whether we furnish kids with low cost tablets, netbooks or iPads ….. 

We simply must do things differently, if we want to make the most of differentiated instruction.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why I Love To Talk To Parents

In September I invited the parents in my school district to join me in reading Tony Wagner’s text The Global Achievement Gap. As you may recall from my early blogs the Wagner text speaks to the Seven Survival Skills necessary for students to be successful in the 21st Century. He talks about why schools - even the best schools - are failing in this regard. He also talks about what needs to happen to change the educational paradigm rooted in an industrial education model which is ineffective and obsolete.Wagner was the key note speaker today in Boston at the Learning and the Brain Conference and the message is resonating with educators and social scientists from across the country.

In recent weeks, my conversations with parents have been fascinating, enlightening and encouraging. I am learning that parents:

  • ·         Are passionately interested in the education of their children
  • ·         Value innovation and creativity over teaching to the test
  • ·         Wish that we would talk more about engaging students in learning and not engaging them to take tests
  • ·         Believe that if students are learning to be critical thinkers, adept problem solvers, collaborative work partners, influencers, leaders and self-directed learners …..the tests will take care of themselves.
  • ·         Embrace the philosophy of the International Baccalaureate program but would like to understand more about it
  • ·         Want to understand how they can engage meaningfully with our teachers and administrators; especially at the middle and high school; understanding that there is a changing dynamic at these levels but still a place for them to be active and valued as parents
  • ·         Believe that there are many extraordinary teachers in our schools and strongly support all efforts to give teachers the professional development resources necessary  to grow and develop their skills
  • ·         Understand that they can and do play a critical role in maintaining the necessary community support for our schools especially in these challenging economic times
  • ·         Agree that we need to do more to improve technology resources and the use of technology in our classrooms to enhance the instructional program
Although our book chats always begin with discussion of the Wagner text, we quickly move on to parent perceptions, experiences, concerns and hopes for growth in our schools. As one parent expressed recently, “I felt like I was part of a ‘think tank’ and we were thinking together about how we could explore ideas for richer experiences and improvements.”

Parents need to be partners in learning. Educators need to embrace instead of exclude them.