Learning reimagined | Differentiated education and the human condition
"Out of Many, One People" is Jamaica's motto, which speaks to the uniqueness as a people, the individual thoughts, attitudes, and cultures that come together to make us one as a people.
But many children in school may feel closer to "Out of many, only the celebrated few". These celebrated few - those who are destined to become doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs - are hailed as leaders, looked on with pride, while the rest are just alternates.
The truth is, many of us will never be doctors or lawyers, and there doesn't seem to be much of a market for Indian chiefs these days. In fact, we may even admit that many of us have no desire to be any of the 'big three' but consistently express disappointment and worry when our children express interest in anything else because we are afraid they will become 'starving artists'.
Recently, a fireman related a story that he knew he wanted to be a fireman his entire life, but when he stated this in school, one of his teachers told him that it would be a dreadful waste of his life to become a fireman. He did become a fireman, and as life would have it, he rescued the same teacher from a fiery crash.
British educator Ken Robinson says that "human communities depend on diversity of talent and not a singular concept of ability", and yet almost everywhere, we continue to deliver curriculum to all children in the same way.
Instead of testing for the achievement of standards, we test for promotion, where we have replaced the end goal of continuous improvement with the end goal of standardisation, similar to our favourite fast-food restaurant. Essentially, this is what we continue to feed our children.
Differentiated instruction is not 'alternate' learning. It is not for 'the special' or 'the gifted'. In fact, its most basic definition is "the way in which a teacher anticipates and responds to a variety of students' needs in the classroom". In other words, the same way any consumer brand anticipates and responds to a variety of its customers' needs in the marketplace. In short, they plan.
Planning, or, in other words investing in the education of children in a classroom, is the cornerstone of differentiated instruction. Indeed there is a question of resources, and those resources needed may be access to technology, access to the best curricula or the most desired resource, time.
However, teachers do have access to their subject texts, some of which have been retaught, comprising extended learning editions that allow them to meet each student at the point of their need in any class, in any society, in any school is that every class will contain children who immediately master a concept, children who are average and those who require development.
Children require access to their basic needs, and once those are met, they require access to curricula that are tailored to their specific strengths and stretches. If there are 30 children in a class and only six are able to access instruction in the manner it is delivered, then what of the other 24? They are likely to be labelled lazy and disruptive.
However, in the traditional framework, the majority of schools continue to teach to the average of the bell curve, and lean on the culture of extra lessons.
But consider, what is the purpose of extra lessons? Is it to revisit the curriculum? Or is it a continuation of the curriculum? If we are revisiting the curriculum, then delivering instruction in the same method as in the classroom would be counter-productive, and sadly, many of our extra lessons and our in-class curriculum is once again tied to passing a test.
If it is a continuation of curriculum, then is the curriculum too much for the students, and is it that they are unable to complete it within the normal school day? This means that less time is spent on concept mastery and too much time is spent on a student's capacity to remember and recall.
In practice, differentiation in the classroom occurs in the well-planned delivery of instruction, teacher attention, in the content (what students learn), the process (how students learn), the product (how students demonstrate their learning), and the environment (where and with whom students learn).
STRENGTHS & STRETCHES
Being 'good' at something is not represented by an 'A'. In every person for every subject matter of life there are strengths and stretches. You may not excel at gardening, but you order a great takeout meal.
You may excel at corporate planning and in the same vein be absolutely terrible at building houses, and yet we all need a house and we all need food. Accepting differences does not mean accepting less for yourself or children. It means accepting their unique abilities and natural leanings. It means embracing the development areas and working for continuous improvement at all levels in all things.
We will always need doctors, lawyers, but we also need firemen, bankers, journalists, scientists, and the professionals in the creative arts. We should utilise the process of differentiation to unearth a student's gifts, allowing those gifts to form a foundation for their career and professional life. We may as well consider ourselves as educators an enemy of the State.
- Article courtesy of the American International School of Kingston (AISK), a global centre for excellence in education. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.