Differentiated Instruction

Since this is my introductory post on “The Art of Education” blog, I feel some specification is in order.  The main writer of this blog focuses primarily on the benefits of technology within the classroom which can prove to be incredibly useful, but I plan on discussing topics directed more towards teaching theory and philosophy.

With that being said, I wish to look into differentiated instruction (DI) first.  For me, DI is dichotomized by the ever-growing emphasis on high-stakes testing and its effect on the curriculum.  The problem with today’s measure of academic success is that achievement is rooted in the quality of test scores leading many teachers to alter their pedagogical approach towards “teaching to the test.”

Of course educators are well-accustomed to this trend so no explanation or insight is necessary, but a discussion of alternatives should be conducted.  I found myself among the many disenchanted teachers who converted a once diverse lesson into a rudimentary mechanism to produce bare fact-regurgitating student robots; all to produce better scores.  At the end of the day, students may be able to shout out arbitrary names but it is without a narrative or the least context.  This is where DI and its ability to enhance a diversity of students comes in.

Unfortunately, the United States pressures both teachers and students to understand a wide array of facts spreading both groups thin in ability to elaborate in minute facts and anecdotal details to give the content the much needed context.  A simple lesson (geared towards topical over procedural units) is to implement a simple DI strategy.  Here are the steps:

  1. Depending on how you approach the content (i.e. chapter, performance standard, and bench marks) set aside the next full unit of study.
  2. Break it down into sections, preferably four to six, which will be incorporated into the upcoming lesson(s).
  3. Once the class has reached this unit, break the class into the number of groups equal to how many unit sections you have created.
  4. With the class dispersed in their groups you assign them a certain section for them to be responsible for.  This is where things get more complicated with the introduction of multiple variables.  Each student must be able to display their mastery of the section you gave them but it is up to them on how they wish to show it.  It is best to have the students base their evidence on Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences to ground them and give them ideas.
  5. Within their groups, students should be given the luxury of choosing how they are to acquire the knowledge in their assigned section.  For example, a student may just wish to read their textbook while a pair could read it to each other.  Ultimately the students are to be on task and using whichever way (intrapersonal or interpersonal) to accomplish this assignment.
  6. Once the students understand what they are assigned to learn, they must demonstrate their understanding to the class.  Each student can do this through whichever way they feel the most confident (i.e. poster board presentation, written essay, performance either alone or with partners within the same section).
  7. Once everyone is completed, you now begin the unit starting from the beginning with the students coming up and presenting their content to the class.  The benefits derived from this part are where the strengths of DI can be found.  Say you have 4 students in each section and each one takes a different approach towards presenting to the class.  You have one student teaching the class through a dramatization of events, another reading their essay, one with a picture-laced PowerPoint presentation, and another presenting musically through a song from the time period or one of their own.  Of course there are a myriad of different ways for these students to demonstrate their knowledge but the emphasis should be on them picking the form they feel the most comfortable with.
  8. Now by the time every student has presented to the class, the rest of the students will have experienced the section through their classmates’ differentiated approach.  And as the teacher, you are more of a mediator and coach during this time instead of tirelessly lecturing.  But after each section, you should ensure the students understand what was just presented to them and fill in the holes which may have been left by the student presenters.

Naturally, this lesson format is not suitable for every subject or grade level.  It is also just one approach among many in which teachers can incorporate DI to the class.  Teachers still need to monitor the class and make sure time is not being spent socializing or being off task, but I strongly believe the pros outweigh the cons in this scenario with factors such as motivation, variation, and stimulation being involved.

They are motivated by feeling that they are in control of their learning by deciding how they will present to the class.  The variation in ways their classmates present the material allows students to be introduced to the content in new and different styles.  Students experience a wealth of stimulation through the diverse experiences of group work, multiple presentations, and a new approach towards learning the material over the redundant teacher-centered lecture format.

Like I previously stated, this is just one form of DI among many.  Rob Baker’s posts provide another great alternative which can create similar results.  Technology is an essential tool for DI but that is for another post.

A new idea

In our haste to finish off material before the midterm exam we are having to postpone a project until next semester. You can imagine the dismay of the students….. However, they did agree with me that it would serve them best to have some sort of project to add another project grade to the grade book. Racking my brain for an idea I began to remember the Michael Welsch videos I posted. I decided to try something digital. I am going to get the students to open up a blog. More than likely they will use blogger given its easy interface (sorry WordPress). I am still working on the fine details of this but I am thinking on having the students create their blog and make three small 500 word blog posts on various topics. I see some promise in using some digital technology in the classroom. The students can use their blog as a journal for homework grades and so on. The possibilities seem limitless.