COPIED FROM http://www.raisingwizards.com/differentiation FOR STUDY/REFERENCE ONLY WILL BE DELETED AND NOT PUBLISHED
So, what is differentiation? Differentiation is a method of offering one subject in different ways, depending on the skills of the receiving students. Let’s say we have a classroom in Far, Far Away filled with ogres, witches, and talking trees. The teacher, Professor Fiona, wants to present a unit on battle strategy. She first tries to have her class read a chapter on historic battles and answer questions, but she finds that the ogres have fallen asleep, the witches are drawing spells in the margins, and the talking trees have made paper airplanes of the pages.
Professor Fiona realizes that her three disparate groups of students each prefer a different style of learning. Her ogres are hands-on (kinesthetic) learners, and prefer to learn by doing. Her witches, on the other hand, have short attention spans, and get bored reading, but respond very well to lectures (because they are auditory learners). And, her talking trees are visual learners, and need to see the strategies illustrated in front of them before they can understand.
With this in mind, Professor Fiona creates three different projects for her class. After an energetic PowerPoint presentation where she explains the battle strategy (auditory), lists strategy outline on the screen (visual), and has students help her illustrate a battle on her desk with little mini-figures (kinesthetic), she divides the students into three groups, based on their learning styles, and gives them each a different activity. The ogres go outside and practice battle strategy with a kickball then write up the ultimate battle plan, the witches listen to an audiotape of the history book and create a puppet show of a battle, and the talking trees draw a graphic novel about a battle they have imagined.
The key to successful differentiation is knowing your students. A teacher must spend some dedicated time evaluating each student’s strengths and weaknesses, in order to get a clear picture of the type of instruction that will engage each one. This is very rarely mandated in our public school classrooms, which means that teachers must accomplish this labor-intensive task between regular lessons, or on their own time. It takes a very kind-hearted teacher to want to take that step, especially since so much of our teachers’ compensation is tied to other things (test scores, etc.)
A second challenge is classroom management. By its nature, grouping students means that while the teacher is working with one group, the others must have the discipline to work alone without supervision. This requires the teacher to set ground rules about classroom behavior and expectations right from the beginning of the year. This can scare teachers who are new to the concept of grouping, but it can and has been done successfully in many, many classrooms across the country. A few hours reading up on techniques can put those fears to rest – but again, the question is, which teachers will choose to do this on their own time?
Grouping students by ability or learning style seems logical, but unfortunately, it can set off a firestorm of protest by parents who don’t want their children left out of “the good group.” The common practice in today’s classrooms of mixed grouping stems from well-intentioned adults trying to make sure no one’s feelings get hurt… but unfortunately, this forced equality comes with a price: the brightest students are held back.
Differentiation allows a teacher to give her gifted students additional challenge, especially in classrooms where ability levels range from high to low. While Professor Fiona might ask her struggling students to design a board game that includes challenges one would face in battle (that the rest of the students could play later), she could then ask her brightest students to set up a medieval battlefield challenge game outside – something along the lines of the giant living chess game Harry, Ron and Hermione played in the Sorcerer’s Stone – where teams run an obstacle course and must choose among several paths based on the battle strategy they have learned. It’s a similar idea, but much harder to execute than the board game. Because the brightest students can manage their project with little instruction, it frees up time for Professor Fiona to work more closely with her struggling students, in areas where they need help.
The trick to selling students on the grouping idea is to make all of the projects equally fun, just unequally difficult. Then, no student is moping in the “dumb” group because all they get to do is fill in dot-to-dot worksheets, while the “smart” group practices jousting while they ride real horses on the playground. (Obviously, you’ll be getting calls from irate parents at the end of that day.)
In addition, groups should not be labeled, and grouping should be fluid. This means that the same five kids should not always end up in the “easy” group. Remember, the groups are not random – they’re based on each student’s strengths, skills and interests. There will be some subjects that Donkey does well in (waffle making) and Puss is not so good at, and other subjects where Puss is in his element (swordfighting) and Donkey is not doing so well. It is now that the groups should be reorganized, to bring together those students who have similar strengths.
Differentiation is a strategy that has been proven to work, and proven to improve student attitudes about school. The happier a child is at school, the more he or she will learn. And don’t we all just want our kids to be happy?
For further reading about differentiation, try “How to Differentiate in Mixed Ability Classrooms” by Carol Ann Tomlinson. Your heart will soar when you see how much fun learning can be. Just be aware that your child’s teacher may not be ready to jump on the differentiation bandwagon, because she may perceive it as more work added to her already-full schedule. Best of luck to you – don’t give up!
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