Thursday, January 21, 2010

Differentiated Education

I used to blog for my old company, but they took the blog down. I am
not actually allowed to own the writings I put up on that blog, but as
I reference them on occasion in my writing I am putting those articles
up in my archives here for reference sake. I'll put the tag GS on those
articles noting that they were originally published on the

Differentiated Education

May 6, 2008 – 6:14 am by Brendan

This article started with a blog article by Mathew Nedleman on differentiated education. Differentiation is one of the biggest buzz words out there in education. Depending on who you are talking to, differentiation can mean a lot of different things. It can be anything from the silver bullet that saves education, to the biggest waste of time and money in education. At the core though, differentiation means just what it sounds like it means, adjusting education to meet the needs of individual learners.

Many current educational programs make reference to, or at least consider Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In essence, this says that all people have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning. Differentiation is just what teachers do to take advantage of these strengths and weaknesses.

Early on, differentiated learning was mostly considered to mean creating individual education plans for every student. In actual practice, differentiated education often becomes extra work for stronger students. Today, a lot of educational funding is determined by special education students. This coupled with trends to mainstream as many students as possible effectively means, differentiated education can sometimes be heavily focused only on students who need extra help.

When a teacher or parent suspects a student would qualify for special education they can start the process of determining if said child is actually special (as if all children weren’t special). To identify a special education student, the teacher must, in most cases, refer the student to the school psychologist. To do this usually means some period of time observing the student, attempting different in-class strategies, and meetings, lots of meetings. Identified special education students are required to have individual education plans (IED). This is one kind of differentiated education.

Gifted students can also be identified. Often this is done by looking at standardized tests (required thanks to NCLB), and then taking a closer look at the top percentages. Many districts allow teacher or parent recommendations. In most cases the student will be asked to take more tests and perhaps have some interviews. These children are identified as gifted (no identity crisis here). Gifted students don’t usually have IEP’s, but usually have some note in their “permanent” file. As a side note, many schools can and do identify gifted students even if they are gifted in only one subject. If the school district is big enough, gifted students can have separate classes (sometimes just for one subject). If the school is small, gifted students will sometimes be put into clusters (all or most of the gifted students will be in the same classroom). This is another kind of differentiated education.

“Real” differentiated education as Mathew speaks of in his blog, is meant to focus on the classroom as a whole. As teachers, we usually have little choice in the students who enter our classroom on the first day of school. We do, however, have a set curriculum that we are expected to teach to every student and according to NCLB, we are expected to bring every child up to a specific level. What would you do if half of your students were two or more years below grade level in most subjects, and you had 2 students well above grade level?

If meeting NCLB is interpreted as ‘focus on raising the scores of the low students’ then average and high students really don’t get an education (An argument for changing NCLB). Differentiated education is the tool teachers use to raise the test scores of struggling students while challenging and educating others. Handing out an extra worksheet or telling a student to write a story in addition to regular work can be considered differentiated teaching, in the literal sense of the word, but it is NOT differentiated education.

In my Math classroom, for example, we generally followed a schedule of a quick whole class introduction, long hands-on group work, and medium length discussion. While the students were working in groups, I would move around the room listening and working with each group. I could make sure each person was contributing to the group, help students who were having difficulty and most importantly, gauge the level of understanding of each student. When it came time to discuss the lesson with the group I would ask specific groups to share specific bits of knowledge they learned.

Generally, in my Math class, we worked on developing an understanding of math concepts, putting them into words, and then expanding our understanding to a general rule that works for everything. The differentiation was allowing the students to explore individually or in groups, but no one person was expected to do it all (I will often put my “best” students together so they don’t dominate a discussion). Everyone reached the same point in the curriculum because the discussion brought the the independent learning to a unified end. What most people are surprised to learn is, even the ’so called’ low students or groups have something valuable to share with the class (often a crucial piece to understanding the concept). This is again just one kind of differentiated learning.

Differentiated education is using the strengths, learning styles, and interests of each student to enhance education. Differentiated education can mean changing the method of delivering education It can mean the method of practicing skills. It can mean the method of demonstrating proficiency. In reality, differentiated education can mean almost anything. It can even mean direct instruction. No matter what differentiated education means to you, if teachers are going to successfully implement this education plan they spend more time getting to know their students, creating lessons, grading projects, and in general filling up those 30 or so hours of work we do outside of the classroom every week. Just another reason teaching pay should start at $60,000 a year.


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