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.