Differentiation: The Invisible, Well-Behaved, 600 Pound Tiger Waiting Patiently in the Classroom

All students would be excited as well as apprehensive if a Tiger was in their classroom but a well-behaved animal would have the students’ undivided attention and the potential for learning would sky rocket.  Using differentiation techniques in the classroom can result in a living, breathing, thriving atmosphere where my metaphor of a 600 pound Tiger becomes the visible process by which student learning becomes what it should be, each individual student learning at his or her maximum potential and enjoying every minute of it. Over my next few posts, I’m going to explore differentiation from a variety of contexts.

All teachers learn about differentiation during their under graduate training and all teachers are exposed to differentiation training regularly during their career.  So, why don’t we see more differentiated learning processes in the classroom?  My colleague, Sherri Beshears-McNeely, and I asked this question when we were assigned a project that required us to train teacher teams from 50 schools across the state in a new program and to include differentiation as part of the learning process. We started as we always do by discussing the goals and building backward from there.  We then brainstormed ideas and how to weave all of them together into a viable learning experience for the participants.  Both of us had experienced various differentiation trainings.  These trainings were what all good trainings are; a power point, an engaging speaker and a few really good ideas or suggestions about how differentiation can work in the classroom.  We had been the teachers that took these ideas and immediately applied them in our classrooms, but we knew that many of the participants didn’t do this or they tried once and stopped.  Was there anything we could do to make the experience different?  We decided to make the entire training a differentiation experience.

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We created a Differentiation Menu that included instructions for how to begin assignments, how they would be assessed and included information on how to design their own meal based on time and choice.  Our menu included a complimentary appetizer; this was a whole group activity that allowed participants to gain an understanding about how the two day professional development training would unfold.  We determined a signal that would bring all of us together for necessary announcements or instructions.  Instructions were given only once and time was allowed for participants to make and record their choices.  The time allotted for this appetizer was 15 minutes and when the timer buzzed we stopped and encouraged participants to complete their menu or move on to their next choice.

Our menu included several appetizers in addition to the complementary one mentioned above, soup and salad choices, three entrees and five desserts.  Within the soup and salad choices was a reguired mini lesson that was offered at two different times.  Participants chose when to attend.  There were additional mini lessons to choose from and they were offered only once.  The meat of the training was in the entrees.  These activities had a longer time period and participants had to post completed products.  Desserts were shorter to the point activities such as reading an article and posting a response, creating a metaphor or logo, responding to a quote, or ranking websites using a criteria format provided.  Participants worked by themselves on some of the activities, with a partner on others and at times with their entire school team.

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Accountability is the well behaved tiger.  Throughout the two days we layered in various methods of accountability for both teachers and students.  Posting products allowed us to easily formative assess whether all teams had completed assignments.  From across the room we could count how many were posted and announce that two or three still needed to be completed.  For individual assignments we had a sign in sheet.  This was a successful strategy that I had used in my classroom.  A student signature meant that their assignment was completed to the best of their ability.  Participants didn’t need to show all assignments to the facilitator but when it was required we had specific questions we asked to determine understanding.

At the end of the two day session we unpacked the training with the participants focusing on how the following were used:  Time, Space, Resources, Student Groupings, Teaching Strategies, and Learning Strategies.  We also discussed the possibility of Teacher Partnerships and how that would work within their individual schools.

So, we made the tiger visible.  The evaluation comments were similar to what we had experienced with students.  “The time flew by.”, “We enjoyed what we were doing.”, “Being able to choose what and when we wanted to do something was great and made the experience ours.”  We enjoyed the experience as facilitators and we shared this with the participants.  We were able to move around the room and get to know where each school was in their understandings of the process as well as the individuals from each school based on their products and response to our questions.  We also asked, “Who did the work?”, “Who was tired at the end of the day?”, “Is this the way a classroom should be?  Students doing all of the work and the teacher going home energized and excited about what happened.”

Did all of this make a difference in what we saw in classrooms as we continued through this year long project?  Not to the extent that we wanted but there were highlights.  In one school a sixth grade team of teachers decided to put in place a no fail policy.  I watched these teachers make significant change to their practice.  Assignments were never busy work because all assignments were required to be completed by all students.  These teachers worked together making decisions on a daily basis around what was important for their students to know and do.  In several schools I saw students working in groups on a regular basis for the first time and many teachers tried anchor activities or stations using the models demonstrated in the dessert and appetizer sections of the training.  The accountability strategies we gave the teachers aided them in making these transitions.

The tiger is still waiting patiently in many classrooms but I can feel good about making a difference for some students and teachers.  I have continued to use these strategies in professional development trainings that I design because I like the feel of the tiger breathing down my neck, ready to pounce and join the excitement.

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Image of the Tiger curtesy of Joe Lencioni, shiftingpixel.com

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