As I met with a student at my desk this morning to orally review a written math test he had “bombed” the other day, it occurred to me that “Differentiation” as a concept can be applied to teachers’ approaches as well as to students’ learning. Effective and manageable DI will look different in every classroom.
In my own high-needs, largely stage 1-2 ESL class comprised mostly of boys, including two with identified autism and several with other as-yet-unidentified but highly suspected formal Spec Ed designations, differentiation looks like this this morning: a group of five students, including a few from a colleague’s class, is working on a “Growing Book”, labelling plant diagrams. On the carpet, two boys sit side by side, reading a book about trees. A stuffed toy rabbit is snuggled under the arms of one of the boys. Another boy sits nearby, a stuffed elephant under his arm, totally engrossed in a “big book” about the life cycle of a plant.
One boy sits with my TA at a large table, using play money to review how to make change, something he demonstrated difficulty with during math yesterday. Three girls are working on a large poster about sunflowers, in a corner of the room. Two students are playing with markers at their desks (ugh, I guess you can’t save everyone, hehe!), while another student is perched comfortably on the couch in one of my two reading corners, reading aloud to himself from the plant book he recently finished. His couch-neighbour, one of my students with autism, is perusing his math text book.
My student CYW is working with yet another student, patiently encouraging him to finish a piece of writing from last week. Two students are watering their as-yet-unsprouted seeds on the window-ledge, while another student bounces on a large theraband ball, and excitedly calls out to me each new discovery in a large picture book about plants he is “reading”. Suddenly, three boys are on the floor by the heater, mopping up a giant water spill – apparently someone was over-zealous with their plant watering!
At the end of the period, we all meet on the carpet to do a learning check in (“Think-Pair-Share: What did you learn about plants this morning?”) to practise our paraphrasing skills and to celebrate and consolidate our independent learning. This, in addition to my anecdotal observations throughout the work period, forms the basis of my formative assessment this day, and guides my thinking and planning for tomorrow and the rest of the week.
And then, it’s lunchtime!
In my opinion, differentiated instruction means that students can take charge – Papert-style – of their own learning in an environment that has been carefully set up by the teacher, and that allows for a variety of learning styles to be fed. In some cases the lessons may be more teacher-directed, but rich and varied, and with open tasks nonetheless. In other cases students may work independently or in small, teacher-led groups. In some cases a combination of approaches is in order. As long as the resulting learning environment benefits a variety of students, I say, go with what works in your unique classroom setting.