Monday, February 22, 2016

An Argument for Differentiated Instruction

Last week, while conducting H.E.A.T. walkthroughs in intermediate grade classrooms, I pondered how often we as educators actually adjust/tier/differentiate our instruction based on the readiness level or interests of our students. Though I witnessed both whole group and small group (i.e., centers/stations) instruction during these classroom visitations, the delivering of content as well as the small group learning activities were essentially the same for all students.

Whenever I observe whole group instruction, I inherently question the assumptions we often make indirectly about the learners such as:
  • There is no significant difference academically among the students.
  • All learners possess the same interests, modality strengths, and dominate multiple intelligence.
  • The content delivery (using either whole group or small group instruction) targets each student’s intellectual wheelhouse.

Given the limited time available for instructional planning during the school week, it would be surprising if more than 5% of current practitioners even considered any of the above assumptions. In affluent zip codes, this may not matter; but in neighborhoods where students have fewer opportunities for enrichment, the quality of instruction does matter. Personalizing learning through differentiation can be the key factor that turns a struggling student into a successful, empowered lifelong learner.

Consider a Common Core Math Lesson where students are solving multi-step, real-life, mathematical problems posed with positive and negative rational numbers using strategically chosen tools. Traditionally, the teacher might have students participate in a game-like activity that requires them to review simplifying expressions using the distributive property and combining like terms. Now consider how students might respond to this same math standard, but this time, they have to locate a current article from the internet that contains numbers (e.g., article about fashion, sports, politics, business) and create an algebraic story problem based on the contents of the article, whether real or fictitious.

What if students had to determine the heat loss of one of the hot water tanks at their middle school and make a recommendation to either maintain the current water tank or replace it with a more energy-efficient model by first converting the “word” directions for determining heat loss into an algebraic equation? After creating the equation, students would have to choose three possible replacement brands from any website and compare their heat loss rating to the one on their campus using the heat loss equation.

All three examples required students to simplify expressions using the distributive property and/or combining like terms, but at different levels of cognition and related to different interests. By using the student’s individual and/or collective interests and readiness levels to drive engagement, students can better understand how content is connected to their own life experience.

Research has validated many of the practices associated with differentiation, among which are promoting student engagement, responding to learning styles, and teaching to a student's zone of proximal development (e.g., the distance between what a learner can demonstrate without assistance and what the learner can do with assistance). Addressing any one of these attributes of differentiation on a consistent basis can yield positive benefits in terms of achievement, self-esteem, and motivation. Sometimes, it’s the little things that we do that can make a big difference; and differentiated instruction may be one of those things.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Factors Impacting Effective Technology Use: Small Group Instruction

After spending years conducting classroom walkthroughs, I believe I have witnessed most forms of small group instruction. I've seen everything from self-directed centers at the Pre-K-2 levels (and even on a few high school campuses) to a small cadre of middle school students engaged in an anchor activity quantifying results from an online survey about campus bullying. Research has shown that properly structured and well-managed small group configurations can generate powerful results in terms of student learning, retention, and overall college success.

As a former classroom teacher, I remember the first time I organized stations for my 9th grade students. Aside from the initial struggle, my high schools students encountered working collaboratively, conducting peer evaluations, and self-monitoring their own behavior. I did notice how natural it was for them to exchange ideas, develop their own voice, and tackle complex problems beyond what they were willing to do on their own.

As a technology consultant, I also recall one instance where we spent the entire summer working with teams of middle school teachers on Project-Based Learning (PBL) and the use of the 5E Model prior to the arrival of their grant-funded mobile devices. Similar to adding oil to a hot frying pan, as soon as the digital tools arrived in early December, the aggregate LoTi Level increased from a LoTi 1 to a LoTi 3/4 almost overnight.

Later this month, we at LoTi will be releasing nationwide the LoTi Digital Age Survey 20th Anniversary Edition that explores the connection between variables such as small group learning (e.g., learning stations/centers, cooperative grouping, and/or individualized instruction) and the Level of Teaching Innovation (LoTi). My hunch is that results will show a strong correlation given the elements embedded at the higher LoTi Levels (e.g., collaborative problem-solving, student generated questions, real world connections, rich uses of technology) and the fundamental structure of small group learning.

This blog post is the final entry in a series of fourteen online entries highlighting factors that impact the effective use of technology in today's classrooms. This series focuses on each of the research variables used to conduct comparative analyses as part of the LoTi Digital Age Survey 20th Anniversary Edition.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Getting It Right! — Arthur Elementary School

This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to spend a day working with the staff at Arthur Elementary School in the Oklahoma City School District as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s ConnectED initiative—a program that has provided 1:1 access for every student and staff member on campus. In the past, I have wondered how schools such as Arthur Elementary School are selected. What attributes made them one of only 114 schools nationwide, as well as the only campus in Oklahoma, to receive the iPads?

After facilitating the day-long session, which included staff members analyzing lesson plans, completing inter-rater reliability exercises, conducting self-assessments, and creating new learning experiences based on the H.E.A.T. (Higher order thinking, Engaged learning, Authentic connections, Technology use) instructional model, my question had been answered.

The professional manner in which individual staff members and grade level teams converse with one another—along with their collective vision and willingness to reach group-generated goals relating to 21st Century learning—was truly remarkable. Current survey results showed the majority of the AES staff at a LoTi 2 (Exploration), which makes sense given the quick turn-around for receiving the iPads and initial PD. Yet, a year from now, my bet is that the majority of staff will be on the cusp of a LoTi 4 (Integration).

The faculty's unified approach could even be seen as you walked the halls of the school, where each classroom door was adorned with its own H.E.A.T.-themed design. The doors serve as a daily reminder for students, parents, and staff of the school's vision for using digital resources to promote high levels of student engagement, collaborative learning, and authentic problem-solving.

It is rare to witness first-hand a group of dedicated teachers, along with their principal and District Tech guru, that are so much in sync. Hats off to the Arthur Elementary School staff, their principal, Rhonda Schroeder, and the District Executive Director of Information Technology, Eric Hileman. I so much look forward to their continued work with elevating teaching innovation and closing the achievement gap. Way to go Arthur Elementary School!  #lotiguy #connectED