Differentiated Instruction: It's Nothing New for This Guy
Hess (1999) described differentiation as "all about options and not about being punitive by just piling on additional work for the more able." Differentiation calls on all educators to students and curriculum in a different way. "You have to think about the outcome — and how you will get them [the students] all there on different paths" (DiFiore in Hess 1999). Using a differentiated approach requires planning. Some of the keys to true differentiation as mentioned by Hess are that teachers should keep the focus on concepts while emphasizing understanding and not just retention of fragmented facts. They should try to help students to see the big picture. One approach is to use preassesments to identify where each of the students are, make grouping flexible, and have the students set goals based on readiness, interests, and learning profiles.
I believe that when the student sets his or her own goals, they are more likely to take an active role in their education. It becomes more student - centered and less teacher driven. Tomlinson (1999) identified the classroom as being more analygous to an escalator and not a stairwell. The escalator goes higher and higher, whereas the staircase stops at each level (in this case each grade level). We all want to have our students look past the now and apply what they know, rather than just getting the bare minimum needed to advance.
After reading Hess' (1999) article, I was not surprised by Hess’s opinions. I mostly agree with Hess and Tomlinson on their approach to differentiation, and I, myself, have been using differentiated instruction in my classrom for years. In my opinion, it comes down to sound teaching practice. I feel that all “good” educators differentiate. If they do not, then they lose a majority of their students. A preassessment helps a teacher to determine what each student needs and will assure that a teacher can individualize the lesson for them. This method is one that I have used and found to be extremely beneficial. I have coached and observed many teachers over the years who utilize a differentiated approach without evening recognizing it. Last year, I had to give a presentation to parents on this very topic. It came up as a result of the district's new policy to differentiate. At this meeting, I provided parents with the general definition as well as several examples of how I would differentiate in my Algebra class. The parents were surprised to see that differentiated instruction did not just mean more work for the stronger students and less for the weaker students, as they had originally thought. Instead, the level of the question and/or the response that I received from the students is how I differentiated my instruction. I expect a more detailed response from my more advanced students. I invite them to answer the question and explain their solution. I also ask my more advanced students act as peer mentors to others in the class that may be struggling.
On Friday, October 10, 2008, I attended a workshop on differentiated instruction given by Dr. Michael Shackleford. I was mostly unimpressed with the workshop, as I believe that Dr. Shackleford simply stated the obvious. In addition, he was unable to provide specifics on how to conduct assessments in a differentiated classroom. Overall, he indicated that the traditional approach to education should be dropped and that an alternative must be used. In this case, "traditional" refers to assessments based on tests, which are not typically a good indicator of success. This thought struck a nerve in me, because as we all know, a strong educational foundation must be given to all students in order for them to achieve. If we do not teach common content for all, then there can be no differentiation. As for tests, I do agree that we can assess students in other ways and, for the most part, any good educator does. I assess students on a daily basis in an informal way, such as with answering question in class. I also assess students when they work in groups; I just walk around the room and observe and listen to what each member is saying. For me, a student’s ability to explain how he or she arrived at the answer is so much more telling than just the answer itself. It also shows me their ability to think. That ability is more crucial to the learning process than the score that they receive on a quiz or a test. However, at the end of the day, the SAT is still a formalized test which determines whether or not our students continue on to college. So it is hard for all of us to drop traditional assessments like written tests when in the end, that is what our students are graded upon.
A differentiated approach to teaching is a great thing and should be tried by all because the benefits to the students are incredible. However, even though it is the buzz word for now, it has been around for a long, long time. It is nothing new for this guy.
Hess, Mary Anne, 1999, “Differentiated Instruction Can Raise The Bar For All Learners”
Tomilinson, Carol, 1999, The Differentiated Classroom
About the Author:
Michael Wilson is District Coordinator of Mathematics and Science for the Asonia School District. He recently completed his administration degree at Southern Connecticut State University.
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