Differentiation Disrupted: Part 2

This is part two of a series on Differentiation in the Classroom. 
Click here for Part 1.

The Need

How do we address our students’ needs in order to maximize their potential and engagement with the material? I began to research this a few years ago. In September 2015, I conducted a poll of 40 teachers from all over the country. My results were as follows:

  • 61% of respondents identified as “self-taught” in Differentiated Instruction.
  • 84% of respondents indicated that time was a major stress factor in planning for Differentiated Instruction.
  • 58% of respondents said that they “very often” or “somewhat often” find themselves making multiple lesson plans.

Based on the responses, most teachers believed that the best way to differentiate was to create multiple lesson plans within one classroom to address the needs of the various groups in the classes. This resonated with me, as my own training in differentiation had been along similar lines.

I also discovered, in my own teaching and anecdotally from my peers, that when students are grouped by level, it creates a serious self esteem issue. When you are labeled the “average” kid, you have a hard time wanting to work hard to achieve more when you are thought to be right in the middle. Therefore, you will do just enough to get by, as you feel that is the best you can do. This is the thought process: “The teacher thinks I belong in this group, so I must belong here. why try to be like Olivia the Smart Girl? I’ll never be like her.” This is feeling has serious long term ramifications. By creating this kind of system in our classrooms, we are sending subliminal messages to students that this is the best I think you can do. These messages will take root in the fertile young minds we teach, and stay with them long after they have left our classroom.

What do we do?

With my own students, I began to experiment with different methods of differentiation. It was through a fun class activity that the light bulb popped on. One day, just before vacation, I was trying to think of something light and fun to do with my students. The day before break is always hard, but I wanted the class to be fun, not just busy work or cleaning the classroom. On a recent professional development day, the teachers had all been asked to take quizzes to find out what kind of learning style they had. The idea of learning styles is based on the multiple intelligences theory. Some people are musically intelligent, some people are physically intelligent, some people are visually intelligent, some people are verbally intelligent. Your learning style is the way you best understand and process the world.

Having this quiz in hand, I thought it might be fun for my students to find out about the learning style. When I reviewed the results with the students, I discovered something interesting. The top student in my class was primarily a visual learner, just like the least successful student in my class. Yet, due to traditional differentiation, these two rarely interacted. Another “A” student tested as a very kinesthetic learner, just like his best friend, yet they produced very different results in the classroom. If there were so many cross sections of learning styles, why couldn’t I create one set of lesson plans that appealed to the various learning styles, and gave them more opportunities to interact? It was with this in mind that I designed a completely new curriculum.

These are the three goals of my curriculum:

  • To give students many different ways to access and engage with the curriculum.
  • To give students at different learning levels a chance to engage with each other.
  • To re-orient my time with less lesson planning and more student engagement.

With these goals in mind, I designed one set of lesson plans for my next unit. There were five types of lessons:

  1. Foundational Lessons, where I give them the background knowledge they need for the unit,
  2. Audio-Visual Lessons, where I try to incorporate videos or music into the lesson,
  3. Group Lessons, where students can interact in a social way and listen to others ideas and bounce ideas off of the group,
  4. Kinesthetic Lessons, where we will act something out or play a physical game based on the material for the more physical learners,
  5. Text based lessons, where we will review primary sources and work closely with the text of the material we are covering.

The lesson planning for this style of curriculum ends up looking like this:

The results were amazing. Students who had never interacted before were suddenly talking to each other about the material. In my 6th grade class, a student who was on a very low reading level and had a lot of difficulties academically, was arguing with an A+ student over whether or not Julius Caesar should have been assassinated. A student who never turned in homework showed up to a project presentation day with a hand made model of Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine and began to detail the debate amongst historians over whether or not da Vinci actually built it. Students were engaged! They were interacting! They were growing and learning! The playing field was much more level than it had ever been before, in my classroom.

This new approach to differentiation not only works, but it gives students a chance to excel and it gives me a chance to build relationships with my students and for them to build more significant relationships with each other, and the material.

As teachers, we encourage our students to learn and try new things, yet we are often afraid to experiment, as the stakes are so very high. It was through experimentation that I was able to create a curriculum which can maximize engagement with students at many levels. I encourage my colleagues to try it, experiment, stumble across their own discoveries. Why? Because the stakes are so very high. This is not just our students, but the future generation. Let us create classrooms which build their confidence and self-esteem so that they can go out into the world and change it for the better.

How can I do this?

Stay tuned for Part 3, on Friday, where I explain how you can create lesson plans based on learning styles, not just in Liberal Arts, but in Math and Science as well. It is easier than you think.

About Devorah: Devorah is a passionate 21st Century educator. She has been working in education, in many capacities, for the past ten years. She has worked in the Silicon Valley, Israel, and this year she will be teaching at Shulamith School for Girls in New York.