Ripples & Reflections

"Learning is about living, and as such is lifelong." Elkjaer.

You Can’t Differentiate Mediocrity.

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Good teaching is differentiation: knowing our students, knowing our curriculum, knowing and using a range of strategies and finding opportunities to give students what they need. It is knowing who is learning what and how and it is knowing our impact as the teacher in the classroom. An excellent differentiated curriculum and classroom needs to be first excellent, then differentiated: you can’t differentiate mediocrity. Differentiation depends on effective collaboration between teachers and between students and faculty. It needs an atmosphere of respect and inclusion and a common goal of student learning. 

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A concept map for differentiating instruction, from Leadership for Differentiating Schools & Classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Susan Demirsky Allan.

Over this week at CA we have had Sandra Page come back in from ASCD to help teachers level-up from last year’s work, which was largely and introduction to differentiation and establishing a common language and set of strategies around it. Then  over the weekend I attended a separate JCIS weekend workshop at Osaka International School, led by Naomi Nelson (part of Bill and Ochan Powell’s Education Across Frontiers), on ‘Differentiation: Making Inclusion Happen.’ It was a powerful week of PD, with Naomi’s weekend sessions being particularly useful as a coordinator. With so much professional learning taking place – as MYP Co, science teacher and HOD Science – it will be a challenge to summarise this all into one post and you will likely recognise much of the ideas here.

An Overview

The differentiation content in each session was largely based on the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson, with the common language of differentiating Product, Process, Content (and Affect) by Readiness, Interest and Learning Profile. As a focus at the school we have been working mainly on building teachers’ readiness in Readiness, Process and – to a much lesser extent – Product (assessment).  The work we have been doing has been supported by resources on the school’s faculty guide and in the ATLAS planners, as well as department-based sessions with Sandra.

The Curriculum-Students Balance

Naomi did an great job of crystallizing the connections between an excellent concept-based curriculum with the practices of teaching in the differentiated classroom. Building on Tomlinson’s work, the mantra became an excellent differentiated classroom is first excellent, then differentiated. We need to build on a strong knowledge of an excellent curriculum, and the process of building and articulating that excellent curriculum is the foundation of progress. As part of this curriculum, we need to be aware of the greater conceptual understandings of our unit and the minimum acceptable evidence of understanding of our students to be successful in the unit. We must know where we need to go, and then think about how we might bring in readiness and interest to get there.

Screen Shot 2013-09-23 at 9.31.55 PMA strong curriculum doesn’t, however, mean a slavish devotion to content over all else. We are educators, not fact transmitters, and must ensure that the students remain in the balance. By knowing our students – their interests and readiness as a group and as individuals and what makes a successful learning environment – we can start to meet their needs as learners. We should use formative and summative assessment data as a regular part of our own teaching feedback cycle.  A differentiated classroom is responsive; the opportunities to respond are planned.

A good differentiated classroom encourages inquiry, but does not lose the curriculum in the balance: a classroom too student-oriented doesn’t easily help progression or maintain ‘standards’ (and as a result, open inquiry as curriculum ranks pretty low on Hattie’s impacts). However, if we focus only on the content, insisting that all students must meet our personal standards at the same time in the same way in order to be ‘successful’, then we are doing our learners a huge disservice.

“Differentiate Up”

A successful differentiated classroom does not sacrifice standards or make things ‘easier’ for students. We don’t give everyone an undeserving top grade because they worked hard or we feel bad for them. We certainly don’t adjust our grading fairness. Instead, we ‘differentiate up’ by making clear our expectations of all students and providing extension that takes the most ready to the next level. We do not differentiate the significant concepts, unit questions or key content by readiness – instead we make it clear how students can go beyond, to extend themselves. We ensure that students sit in the zone of proximal development, an area of tension where they are forced to learn not through giant leaps but through an invitation to challenge and to flow. For those less ready we can provide more process support, scaffolding, coaching and clarification. When all students are clear on what they are required to understand, know and do then we have a solid foundation for differentiation.

By differentiating up, we avoid dumbing down.

……….o0O0o……….

Developing a Repertoire of Strategies for Effective Differentiation

Strategies for differentiation might be a good entry point for teachers who want to see it in action, and to learn to see the benefit of putting the learner at the centre of learning, though they can only go so far if we are not also thinking critically about curriculum development. Both Sandra and Naomi had plenty of strategies to share – here are a few that I have tried and know to be effective in my own classes, which largely hinge on formative assessment, feedback and adjusting my practice, student groupings or learning processes. If you have read this far, you might want to put some of your favourites in the comments.

  • Exit Tickets
    • 1-minute essay (summary of learning)
    • 3,2,1 (3 things I learned, 2 I will practice, 1 question I have)
    • Response to a conceptual or challenge question
  • Socrative Space Races
    • Usually used as a warmer to get groups working together
  • Quia Quizzes
    • Strictly formative, these are for practice and immediate feedback
    • Based on content or skills of the lesson/ subtopic
    • Results help me decide – before class – who needs what help and who needs extension
  • Think-Pair-Share, Headlines, and other Making Thinking Visible Routines
  • Drafting stages of assignments (and feedback, through GoogleDocs and Hapara), to differentiate assignment-based lessons by readiness in terms of completion, skills to develop further or content-based understandings
  • Interest-based choices for students in topics for assignments, essays, research questions

Some strategies I want to try more: 

  • “Tell Me Something” paired reading
  • Cognitive Coaching in classes
  • Round Robin Reflections
  • More effective use of different ‘entry points’ to units as part of the tuning-in process

Respectful Tasks ≠ Labeling Students

A differentiated classroom feels like a community of learners, rather than rows of pupils. With flexible grouping and respectful tasks built on a supportive learning environment and a genuine care for students we can differentiate to meet students’ needs. It is often raised in differentiation sessions that teachers are wary of stigmatising students with the label of being ‘needy’ – and ‘not labeling students’ is a high-impact strategy on Hattie’s meta-analysis. However, giving students that they need, in a manner that encourages growth is not the same as permanently or obviously labeling a student. If we manage students effectively in a caring environment, we can ensure that students are given an appropriate level of challenge (and they will appreciate it).

If we differentiate by readiness only, all the time, we run the risk of creating a ‘tracking’ system in the class – but there are many ways to keep the groups flexible – by interest, level of completion of a task, preference of style (where appropriate, such as direct instruction, reading, problem-solving) or just simply through random groupings.

Students like to know why they have been grouped and in a supportive learning environment, it is OK to share our reasoning. Teacher-student relationships are high-impact on Hattie’s scale, and effort spent in cultivating them is energy well spent.

Differentiation as a Collaborative Process

One of the strengths of Naomi’s workshop was the focus on collaboration as a foundation of effective differentiation. We spent time looking at student responses in groups, trying to deduce students’ thought processes and it was a really useful task to look at the problems from others’ perspectives. She gave an overview of and time to practice Cognitive Coaching techniques, as well as an opportunity to use case studies in  groups to think about the seven norms of collaborative work:

  • pausing (the ‘gift of time’)
  • paraphrasing (“So you’re saying…”)
  • putting inquiry at the centre (of the issue)
  • probing for specificity (“Tell me more about…”)
  • putting ideas on the table (and knowing when to take them off)
  • paying attention to self and others
  • presuming positive intentions (one of my favourites and one if which we must always be mindful)

I wonder what the novice differentiators made of these sessions that were a step away from the direct student-teacher practice of differentiation, but I could really see the value of them as an MYPCo and HOD.  I think we could use up-skilling as HODs in thee practices in order to run more effective, supportive and collaborative meetings in our departments.

Where Would I Like to Go Next?

As a coordinator in the school, I tend to see lots of opportunities for development. A small breakthrough for me over the last couple of weeks (and in part due to attending IB School Visiting Team Member Training) is how we can develop the practices of differentiation and collaboration in-step with curriculum review and strengthening. I would like to have sessions and differentiated PD that build on our work on ATLAS to really connect curriculum to practice through strengthening our curriculum and assessment while developing strategies for formative assessment and differentiation. I really want to open up classrooms, build a stronger community around professional learning and peer-support. We should form vertical curriculum groups, including elementary teachers, to look critically at the standards underlying our curriculum.

I think if we were to have Naomi come to the school next year, she could work with the whole faculty on differentiation strategies and student learning goals and with the HODs on collaboration, cognitive coaching and leading effective meetings. In ongoing Wednesday-afternoon PD we can continue to focus on practices and building an excellent, concept-based, rigorous curriculum and careful collaborative moderation of student work.

I really want to develop our ties with local IB schools more carefully – a shared PD day with OIS would give an opportunity to have day-long jobalikes and a keynote, and if we go a step further we can implement the model we used in IBDunia in Indonesia for the IB teachers’s conference, drawing on the wealth of talent our community has in the classrooms to teach the teachers.

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We’ve come a long way as a school over the last few years – we’re ready to really level-up and MYP: Next Chapter is the perfect opportunity to do this by thinking carefully about who we are, what we teach and how we get there. Finally, the graphic below is an attempt to communicate (in a single slide) how we can use readiness and interest most easily in MYP and DP.

An attempt to capture how we can differentiate by readiness and interest in the MYP and DP. This is in repsonse to teachers' concerns about how we get started and avoid 'dumbing down' or work within the boundaries of our curriculum framework and assessment regulations.

An attempt to capture how we can differentiate by readiness and interest in the MYP and DP. This is in repsonse to teachers’ concerns about how we get started and avoid ‘dumbing down’ or work within the boundaries of our curriculum framework and assessment regulations.

Author: Stephen

Director of Learning & MYP Coordinator at Canadian Academy, Kobe, Japan. Formerly MYP HS Science & IBDP Bio teacher and missing it terribly. Twitterist (@sjtylr), dad and bloggerer.

2 thoughts on “You Can’t Differentiate Mediocrity.

  1. Pingback: Growth Mindsets in Differentiation & Feedback | i-Biology | Reflections

  2. Pingback: Are IB Schools Trivium21C Schools? | i-Biology | Reflections

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