Differentiation is a big topic in our district this year. Teacher Magazine has a terrific interview with differentiation expert Carol Ann Tomlinson. Here are some favorite excerpts:
In giving a list of three things she looks for in a well-run differentiated classroom:
The third thing I look for is the quality of the curriculum being used. You have to differentiate something. And if what you differentiate is boring enough to choke a horse, you’ve just got different versions of boredom. If you differentiate something that’s murky and not clear regarding why anyone’s doing it, then you just generate multiple versions of fog. Or if all you’re doing—as unfortunately many teachers feel pressured to do today—is teaching a telephone book of facts in preparation for a test, you’re not really providing memorable or useful learning. So teachers who are trying to reach out to kids really need to keep asking themselves about the quality of what they are teaching. This is also a mindset issue: If I really think all my kids are capable of learning, then I want to give them the most robust materials, not the watered-down stuff.
What teachers need to think about when developing differentiated instruction:
This gets us further into the core principles of differentiated instruction. One of these is what we call “respectful tasks.” This means that everybody’s work needs to be equally engaging, equally appealing, and equally important. It’s very easy to fall into the pattern of giving some kids no-brainer tasks and giving other kids the teacher’s pet tasks. What you really want is every student to be focused on the essential knowledge, understanding, and skill. And for every student to have to think to do their work … Another key to a good differentiated lesson is “teaching up.” We do much better if we start with what we consider to be high-end curriculum and expectations—and then differentiate to provide scaffolding, to lift the kids up. The usual tendency is to start with what we perceive to be grade-level material and then dumb it down for some and raise it up for others. But we don’t usually raise it up very much from that starting point, and dumbing down just sets lower expectations for some kids.
How differentiation fits into a test-driven culture:
[W]hat we really know from people who work with good quality curriculum is that …[t]ypically, what we’re being asked to teach kids are facts and skills, but you can wrap them in understanding. You give kids a sense of how this makes sense in the world, how it all fits together, how it ties in with their lives, and what they can do with it as people. You don’t jettison the facts and skills; you just package them in a way that makes them more interesting to learn, more memorable, more transferable, more useful, and retainable.
I printed up the interview, along with the Educational Leadership article “Put Understanding First” by Wiggins and McTighe, and stapled (another) copy of the AASL Standards to it for my principal. I love how the Standards dovetail with the perspectives of leading educators. It’s given us a lot to talk about as we think about the role of libraries in schools and how librarians can contribute to learning that is more memorable, more thoughtful, and more easily transferred to new situations.