Succeeding With Differentiation

iStock-875574964_masterThis post was originally published on edutopia.org


Student voice is a hot topic in education, which makes me exceedingly happy—I’ve always thought that students were an educational stakeholder group that needed to be heard.

However, as a former teacher beginning my second year as a full-time consultant working with K–12 educators on differentiating instruction, I’ve come to realize that there’s another group of stakeholders whose voices are as important as students’, if not more so: teachers.

HONORING TEACHER EXPERTISE

For several decades now, differentiation has been on many school districts’ lists of prioritized initiatives. The workshops I facilitate are typically not teachers’ first professional learning on differentiation. Yet differentiation is still an initiative in many districts, not a long-settled policy. Why?

The answer to this question is multifaceted. The traditional A-F grading system doesn’t lend itself easily to differentiation, and tracking students undermines it. However, there’s another significant roadblock to enacting successful, sustainable differentiation initiatives: the pervasive tendency of professional learning facilitators to dismiss teacher voice.

Such facilitators (whether that’s me, an administrator, an instructional coach, or a fellow teacher) are often guilty of inadvertently disregarding participants’ sentiments of struggle. We view these struggles as resistance instead of listening to what teachers say and differentiating our instruction for teachers’ needs accordingly.

In my experience, most examples of teacher resistance are about valid claims, not unfounded complaints. And sometimes the struggles teachers face are with specific practices that are cornerstones of differentiation, which presents a conundrum.

In an effort to help break the cycle of endless differentiation PD and find solutions for common differentiation obstacles, I’ve worked with many teachers to create work-arounds that accomplish the intended goal of the problematic practice and also respect teachers’ professionalism, as illustrated here with two examples.

OBSTACLE 1: PRE-ASSESSMENT

Common teacher sentiment: “Pre-assessments take too long to administer, and they frequently just show that  the majority of the class has not mastered the material.”

The plain truth: Pre-assessments can take a lot of instructional time and sometimes provide teachers with little usable data.

Intended goal of pre-assessment: Teachers can use evidence from pre-assessments to plan instruction based on student need. The pre-assessment data will show teachers (among other things) which students have already mastered the material, so teachers can provide them with enrichment, which could take the form of anchor projects co-designed by the teacher and student, or challenges that allow for students to go deeper into the learning intentions by asking more complex questions.

Solution: Differentiate the pre-assessment. Instead of giving all students a time-intensive, whole unit pre-assessment, begin by giving all students a quick formative assessment on the first topic covered in the unit of study. Data from this formative assessment immediately tell teachers which students may have already mastered the content for the entire unit.

Then, give the full unit pre-assessment only to the small group of students who have shown that they have some mastery of the unit content. The results from this pre-assessment will tell teachers if they need to offer students enrichment on all or just some parts of the unit.

For each subsequent topic in the unit, offer quick formative assessments to the students who did not show mastery on the formative assessment covering the first topic. Offer topic enrichment on these topics to students as the need appears.

OBSTACLE 2: GROUP WORK

Common teacher sentiment: “I struggle with group work and prefer direct instruction.”

The plain truth: About 10 years ago, direct instruction began to get a really bad rap. Teachers were told they needed to be “the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” However, research indicates that direct instruction is highly effective for student learning.

Intended goal of group work: Students work collaboratively to process and deepen their understanding of content.

Solution: Use a hybrid of direct instruction and cooperative learning. Let’s begin by clarifying a couple of points.

First, direct instruction and lecture are not synonymous. John Hattie has notedthat direct instruction done correctly has a greater impact on student learning than group work done incorrectly. Direct instruction is effective when the teacher instructs in short segments, with frequent checks for understanding and opportunities for students to process, practice, and receive feedback.

Second, group work and cooperative learning are not synonymous. Group work is an ambiguous term that encompasses everything from students working on a project together to students sitting in a group but working individually. Cooperative learning is structured so that all group members have equal opportunities to engage in appropriately rigorous learning.

With these clarifications in mind, to create a hybrid of direct instruction and cooperative learning in your classroom, follow these steps:

  1. Use formative assessment evidence to determine which students have mastered the material you will cover during direct instruction.
  2. Offer any qualifying students enrichment.
  3. Continue direct instruction as planned with the remainder of your students.
  4. Build in breaks in instruction (every 7–12 minutes depending on the age of your students) to check for understanding and give students an opportunity to practice and process.
  5. Incorporate cooperative learning structures like Think-Pair-Share or gallery walks during the breaks in direct instruction.

IN THE END

All teachers want their students to succeed, and all teachers try to make this happen. That is all differentiation is. We complicate differentiation by not allowing ourselves to be provisional with how we apply the foundational pieces of differentiated instruction.

Instead, if we address these four questions in our instructional planning, differentiation will always be the result: What do my students need? How do I know? What will I do to meet their needs? How do I know if what I’m doing is working?


Questions about differentiation? Connect with Lisa here or on Twitter.  You can also check out Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps To Harmonize Learning and previous blog posts on differentiation.

The Three Biggest Time Killers We Do Little to Avoid

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This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Teachers overwhelming cite time (76% of those surveyed) as the thing they wish they had more of each day (Primary Sources). Teachers want additional time to assess student work, plan lessons, and meet with colleagues. On the flipside, staff meetings, professional development, and logistical tasks are listed as inefficient uses of time.

And, while I agree these responsibilities could be streamlined, I also believe there are additional contributors, which collectively kill as much or more time than staff meetings or paperwork, are under our (teachers) direct control, and yet little is done to address or change these practices. What I am referring to are our conversations: in the hallway, in the lounge, in meetings.

Conversations and Better Conversations
Last week marked the end of a year-long, intensive instructional coaching workshop led by Jim Knight which I attended (you can read my previous reflections here or here).

While the workshop focused on instructional coaching, much of the content applies to life in general; my learning from the workshop has positively impacted both my professional and personal life.

Case in point, the lessons I learned on how to communicate more effectively with others. In Knight’s session on better conversations (based off the book by the same name) Knight outlines the steps we should take to improve as conversation partners. These criteria ultimately lead to increased productivity and camaraderie. Knight includes an entire chapter on the importance of finding common ground with those whom we converse.

Knight suggests using the acronym ICARE (interests, convictions, activities, roles, experiences) to help us identify safe categories we can explore with our conversation partners to find similarities.

What if we find common ground, but the bonds are destructive?
Since the workshop on Better Conversations, I have keenly observed others engaged in conversation to see how they find common ground with their colleagues.

I have seen many positive examples of people connecting through ICARE conversations about favorite sports teams, graduate school classes, and weekend plans.

Conversely, I have also seen people finding common ground in non-ICARE ways (including me). Whether conversation partners are aware of this or not, many people find common ground rooted in judgment, gossip, or negativity. These likenesses certainly do not garner positive outcomes, and frankly, they are an unwise use of our most coveted commodity- time.

Judgment
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of structure at home.”

“I know. Johnny came to school without his homework log signed for the third week in a row.”

Judgment is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. People often engage in this type of talk and feel as if they have found solid common ground. After all, this is a discussion between two people who share a common belief (it is important for students to comply with teacher orders) which appears to be rooted in the best interest of children.

However, there is an underlying judgment of the students’ parents here (they aren’t doing what they need to do). Additionally, there is a judgment of the student (he should still comply even though he may not have the same opportunities to do so). And, frankly, this type of conversation is not productive. Yet, week after week, year after year, some teachers will continue to engage in conversations which are founded in judgment without consideration of what can be done to alleviate the problem.

Gossip
“Did you hear that teacher is being reassigned?”

“Yes, I heard that. But, I am not surprised. She really struggled this year, and I heard there were a lot of parent complaints about her.”

As Jane Austen once said, “Every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies.”  These “spies” are quick to share their observations in an effort to preserve their own status. Gossip does not help the subject (what could have been done to help this struggling teacher earlier in the year) and gossiping immediately extinguishes trust. If you gossip about one person, everyone knows there is a chance you will one day gossip about them, too. Without trust, productivity is compromised, and again time is wasted.

Negativity
“Students have no accountability anymore. They are in for a rude awakening in the real world when there are no retakes.”

“I know. Every year we keep lowering our standards for students.”

Negativity may be the most pervasive conversation killer and it is also highly contagious. Negativity places blame and focus on problems rather than promoting ownership and a focus on solutions.  Simply, negativity brings everyone down, including our students.

In the end
Judgment, gossip, and negativity are a part of life. From time to time we all engage in conversations which allow us to vent. And, this is ok. The key is, recognizing when these practices are habitual and destructive. At this point, a change must occur. And, that change starts with us.

Few people volunteer to step up and redirect toxic conversations. Many of us try to avoid conflict and fear repercussions. Plus, it can be uncomfortable to be the voice of dissent, even though the dissenting voice is positive.

Yet, my question is, how do you feel when you mitigate your feelings and allow toxic conversations to continue? For me, I wind up feeling safe in the moment, but terrible after the fact. To find a happy medium, I employ the three suggestions below to safely redirect judgment, gossip, and negativity.

  • Be Proactive: Bring up your concerns, but make them about yourself (even if it is really about someone else). “I was wondering if you could help me. I noticed that I pass judgment on the families and students who don’t complete homework and I don’t like this feeling. I can imagine you feel the same way. How can we work together to better address our students’ needs?”
  • Excuse yourself: When gossip rears its ugly head; our tendencies are to either join in or to listen, but not participate. However, silence can indicate consent and give gossipers an unspoken thumbs up. To stop gossip, we need to remove outlets. Therefore, create a mental bank of excuses which you can use to remove yourself from gossipy conversations, “Oh, I left something in the teacher workroom…Sorry to cut you off, I need to use the washroom before my students get back from specials….I am about to go meet with so-so, can we talk later?”
  • Kindly state an alternate point of view: I recognize this can be hard to do. As stated, negativity is contagious. If someone sneezed, you would offer them a kleenex or move away from them to protect yourself. We need to treat negativity the same way.  Acknowledge your colleague’s point of view and kindly share another perspective, “I understand what you are saying. It can be frustrating when students take longer to learn, and we need to reteach. But, since our job is to ensure all students succeed, what is the alternative? If all else fails, go back to suggestion number two and excuse yourself.

How else do you seek to find common ground with your colleagues? What successful strategies have you used and what other obstacles have you encountered and how have you worked to overcome these barriers?
Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.