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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Differentiated instruction

In this age of No Child Left Untested, our primary goal is apparently a 100% passing rate on standardized tests. But at least there’s a recognition by The Powers That Be that people learn in different ways and at different speeds. So we had an all-too-brief discussion about differentiated instruction during our recent professional development day. Not surprisingly, elementary-school teachers turn out to be (on the whole) much more comfortable than most secondary teachers at implementing differentiated instruction.

Let’s think about some of the ways that we already differentiate our instruction in the Math Department at Weston High School:
  • Most of us offer the opportunity for retakes on tests and quizzes. Second chances are important — for some students all the time, for most students some of the time. We structure retakes in a variety of ways. For example, I weigh the original as 1/3 and the retake as 2/3, to a maximum of 80.

  • We all offer extra help as needed, devoting time before, during, and after school for this purpose. Students who need additional instruction can get it in this way.

  • At the other end of the spectrum, high-achieving students sometimes have the opportunity for additional learning and can sometimes receive extra credit for such learning. (Extra credit is not a substitute for the essential learning in a course. Students doing poorly need to learn or relearn what’s most important, not blow it aside and replace it with a project.)

  • Another excellent opportunity for high-achievers who like math and want to learn more is participation in the Math Team.

  • We provide two levels of most courses — typically honors and college-prep. Instruction is very different at these two levels, thereby providing a rather coarse but definitely effective form of differentiated instruction.

  • The coarse distinction mentioned in the previous item still leaves classes quite heterogeneous, so some teachers create homogeneous groups within a class, at least some of the time.

  • Students with learning disabilities may have IEPs that provide them with SPED tutors, always outside of class and sometimes even right there in the classroom. Many students without diagnosed disabilities hire private tutors as well — a commonplace in communities like Weston.

  • We try to provide multiple modes of instruction with the aim of catching different learning styles. Visual representations help the visual learners, oral descriptions help aural learners, etc.
This list only scratches the surface, but it’s a good start. I do have a couple of questions right away:
  1. Almost every teacher teaches two different sections of the same course. If instruction is differentiated for individuals, it’s inevitably differentiated for sections as well. Under these circumstances, how does one keep the sections synchronized? (Letting classes remain out of sync for more than a day or two is a recipe for confusion or worse.)

  2. How does true differentiated instruction affect grading? Students complain (justifiably) when someone else gets a higher grade for completing easier tasks or for achieving at a lower level. How do we persuade a student who’s already getting an A to accept a more challenging assignment?

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