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Differentiation and the Brain

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Examine the basic principles of differentiation in light of what current research on educational neuroscience has revealed. This research pool offers information and insights that can help educators decide whether certain curricular, instructional, and assessment choices are likely to be more effective than others. Learn how to implement differentiation so that it achieves the desired result of shared responsibility between teacher and student.

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1 The Nonnegotiables of Effective Differentiation

ePub

It seems awkward to even have to discuss the idea of differentiating curriculum and instruction to meet the needs of different kinds of learners, but the reality is that too many classrooms are still teaching with the focus of “one for all and all for one.” No one would deny that children learn in different ways and with different amounts of time on task, but traditional school structures, pressures of content coverage for standardized tests, and limited budgets for staff development make the idea of differentiating to maximize learning a mountain still to be climbed. But we must [climb it]. . . .

—H. Lynn Erickson, Stirring the Head, Heart, and Soul

Recently, a veteran teacher noted at a conference that she was teaching a multi-age class for the first time in her twenty-plus-year career as an educator. “That must be quite an adjustment for you,” said the younger educator seated beside her. The more senior teacher reflected for just a moment and responded, “Actually, it really hasn’t been an adjustment for me. I’ve taught a multi-age classroom every year. But this is just the first time someone put the sign on my door.”

 

2 Mindset, Learning Environment, and Differentiation

ePub

All good teachers will tell you that the most important quality they bring to their teaching is their love for the children. But what does that mean? It means that before we can teach them, we need to delight in them. Someone once said that children need one thing in order to succeed in life: someone who is crazy about them. We need to find a way to delight in all our students. We may be the only one in their lives to do so. We need to look for the best, expect the best, find something in each child that we can truly treasure. . . . If children recognize that we have seen their genius, who they really are, they will have the confidence and resilience to take risks in learning. I am convinced that many learning and social difficulties would disappear if we learned to see the genius in each child and then created a learning environment that encourages it to develop.

—Steven Levy, Starting From Scratch: One Classroom
Builds Its Own Curriculum

Hopefully, most teachers have had those days or moments of sheer professional joy when something clicks in the classroom or for a particular student and it is, at least for a time, undeniable that teaching can possess and be possessed by magic. No doubt most teachers have also had their share of moments during which the mountain that is teaching seems too high to climb. Both of these are outlier moments—the former leading us to conclude that all of our students are brilliant and the latter, that they are all beyond our reach.

 

3 Curriculum and Differentiation

ePub

Overall, learner-centered environments include teachers who are aware that learners construct their own meanings, beginning with the beliefs, understandings, and cultural practices they bring to the classroom. If teaching is conceived as constructing a bridge between the subject matter and the student, learner-centered teachers keep a constant eye on both ends of the bridge.

—National Research Council, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School

While differentiation is an instructional approach, it is counterproductive and artificial to separate curriculum and instruction. They are tightly intertwined in the classroom. The nature of what we teach (curriculum) sharply affects the impact of how we teach (differentiation). Creating multiple pathways for students to work with insipid and ill-defined curriculum is hardly worth the effort. In addition, the quality of the curriculum communicates clearly to students our level of regard for them and for their potential. Strong curriculum is also a teacher’s ally in enlisting student motivation to learn. If curriculum is flat and uninspired, it’s difficult for any other classroom element to be dynamic and robust.

 

4 Classroom Assessment and Differentiation

ePub

Most of the kids never talk about it, but a lot of the time bad grades make them feel dumb, and almost all the time it’s not true. And good grades can make other kids think that they’re better, and that’s not true either. And then all the kids start competing and comparing. The smart kids feel smarter and better and get all stuck-up, and the regular kids feel stupid and like there’s no way to ever catch up. And the people who are supposed to help kids . . . they don’t.

—Andrew Clements, The Report Card

Teachers often use assessment predominantly to determine who “got” what was taught and who did not “get” it, so that they can record a lengthy string of grades to back up what appears on the report card. As a result, assessment becomes almost synonymous with grading, and teachers lament, “If I don’t grade the work, the students won’t do it.” Both teachers and students begin to see assessment as a system to mete out rewards and punishment. Some students become acclimated to continual rewards and balk when the supply of them is threatened. Other students accept assessment data as evidence that they will never succeed in school, and their motivation to continue to put forth the effort to learn erodes and ultimately disappears.

 

5 Differentiating in Response to Student Readiness

ePub

A basic educational principle is that new learning has to be based on old learning, on prior experiences and existing skills. Although this principle is known and agreed upon by all educators, in practice it is often overshadowed in schools by the administrative convenience of the linear curriculum and the single textbook. Homogeneous curricula and materials are problematic enough if all learners are from a single language and cultural background, but they are indefensible given the great diversity in today’s classrooms, which requires a different conception of curricula and a different approach to materials. Differentiation and individualization are not a luxury in this context. They’re a necessity.

—Aida Walqui, Access and Engagement

The term readiness refers to an individual’s current proximity to, or proficiency with, a specific set of knowledge, understanding, and skills designated as essential to a particular segment of study. For example, if a second-grader is expected to be able to write a coherent paragraph with a main idea and related details, a student who cannot yet write a complete sentence is not ready to write paragraphs. By contrast, a classroom peer who loves writing and keeps a notebook of stories she writes in her spare time comes to the task of writing a coherent paragraph at a very advanced level of readiness. In fact, her level of readiness suggests that the task might be pointless for her because it will probably not extend her capacity as a writer. Said another way, teachers who pay attention to the variance in students’ readiness levels ask themselves the question “What is the degree of match between the student’s current level of knowledge, understanding, and skills and what he or she will be asked to do today (or this week, or in this unit)?”

 

6 Differentiating in Response to Student Interest

ePub

The priority among most teachers seems to be to cover as much information as possible without regard to whether students are becoming interested in learning. . . . Despite our relatively heavy investment in education as a nation, we still do not seem to realize that teaching which does not consider the students’ priorities is useless. It is wasteful to teach someone who is not interested and so is not motivated. . . . It is not enough for information to be clear and rational; it also has to be interesting. Learning has to be engaging and rewarding for students to learn.

—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Kevin Rathunde, and Samuel Whalen, Talented
Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure

At a time in our educational history when teaching seems equated with preparation for standardized tests, it would be easy to conclude that student interests have no place in the classroom, unless a student happens to be interested in some portion of the prescribed agenda. Research, our own personal experience, and classroom observation indicate, however, that student interests are anything but tangential to learning. They are conduits to motivation, relevance, and understanding. They even affect whether a struggling student will remain in school or become one of the increasing number of dropouts. A 2006 study asked nearly five hundred adolescents in twenty-five different cities, suburbs, and small towns why they left school (Bridgeland, DiIulio, & Morison, 2006). Although there are numerous reasons why students decide to drop out of school, 47 percent of the students surveyed said the main and most frequently cited reason they dropped out of school was that they did not find their classes interesting (see fig. 6.1, page 112). That is one powerful message from students to educators that cannot be ignored. And yet, many teachers do largely ignore student interests, failing to link what students care about with the curriculum they feel responsible to teach.

 

7 Differentiating in Response to Student Learning Profile

ePub

If she only knew . . . that I like to make stuff during science class, she would let us make rockets like Mrs. Bagen’s class. Instead, we read about rockets from a book. . . . If she only knew . . . that I need to talk if I’m going to learn, she wouldn’t send me to the principal’s office so much. She says my talking is disruptive in the classroom. She’s the only person talking. In my opinion, that’s disruptive.

—Jeff Gray and Heather Thomas, If She Only Knew Me

Most people can learn most things in more than one way. However, while one approach may make the process of learning seem more natural or accessible to a particular learner, another approach may confound the process. Although individual preferences for learning are probably somewhat fluid, depending on the circumstances or context, a mismatch between how a student learns best in a particular context and how the teacher expects the student to learn can greatly impede the learning process.

Learning profile is an umbrella term that encompasses four aspects of how individuals learn, how they process what they need to learn, or how they think about, remember, and prefer to use what they learn (Tomlinson, 1999, 2001). In other words, learning profile relates to how people “come at” learning. Research has established that the four overlapping areas encompassed by learning profile are learning styles, intelligence preferences, culture, and gender (Tomlinson et al., 2003).

 

8 Managing a Differentiated Classroom

ePub

The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, “The children are now working as if I did not exist.”

—Maria Montessori

A teacher with the conscious goal of supporting the success of each learner will necessarily learn to use all available classroom elements flexibly so that there is “room” for a variety of students to flourish. The teacher will provide many opportunities for students to work in ways that work for them. This requires being flexible oneself and guiding students in working effectively with routines designed to permit both flexibility and predictability. For many teachers, the prospect of a classroom in which students may be doing a variety of things at a given moment is daunting. It seems more viable—and easier—to have everyone work in a sort of lockstep manner. It’s just more comfortable for the teacher that way. However, the price for teacher comfort is often a classroom that makes room for only a portion of its learners.

 

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