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Differentiation and the Brain

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5 Differentiating in Response to Student Readiness

David A. Sousa Solution Tree Press 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)?”

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6 Differentiating in Response to Student Interest

David A. Sousa Solution Tree Press 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.

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7 Differentiating in Response to Student Learning Profile

David A. Sousa Solution Tree Press 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).

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