Saturday, August 28, 2010

Differentiated Learning

Differentiated teaching and learning is a buzz concept in education in NZ at the moment.  There is a lot of pressure on teachers to apply methods of teaching that allow differentiated learning among their students.  Today I’m taking a look at the following: What is differentiated learning?  Why do we need it? How do we do it?  What are the challenges to good differentiated learning?

What is differentiated learning?
Every student before us in the learning environment (which extends beyond the walls of the classroom) will have a different range of abilities and interests.  They will also have a different range of needs according to what needs have been met (or not) in the rest of their lives.  Differentiated teaching practice attempts to take into account this range of needs and abilities so that students can begin learning from where they are “at”.  For example, there is no point in teaching year 13 calculus to someone who has not demonstrated skill in year 10 algebra.  Similarly, there is little point in teaching year 9 food and nutrition to a dietary specialist with 20 years of experience in the field.  Some students will need a soft touch because of sensitive issues in their lives and others will need a good “kick up the bum” to get them motivated.  Maybe not literally, but you get the idea.

Why do we need to do it?
The current system is modelled after mass production ideas so that we can get as many students through the system with as little cost as possible.  That often translates into 30+ students sitting silently and copying notes as a means of absorbing information and supposedly learning.  It is clear that this method of “teaching” is not going to meet the needs of students, and could even be said to be forcing students needs into a small box and then saying that that their needs, as defined by the small box, are being met.  Too many of the differentiated characteristics get lost because they don’t fit into the educational box of the 19th and 20th century classroom.

Putting it simply, students are not learning anything of value in such “traditional” learning environments.  If the individual needs of each and every student is taken into account, it stands to reason that they will learn so much more and they will even have their non-curriculum learning needs met to some degree.

How do we do it?
There are a range of methods that people use to differentiate with some of them bordering on being token efforts that don’t really accomplish much.  When we understand the purpose of differentiation properly, we can tell whether a method will be successful or not.  When we don’t understand we are likely to apply our current methods and then find some way of calling them differentiated.  I’ll illustrate two methods and see if these examples work to differentiate or not.

First, is offering a common task to the entire class and expecting students of differing levels of ability to apply themselves according to their ability.  The task needs to have multiple methods of being completed so that it is both accessible for those with little knowledge and patience, but easily developed to a high level for students with more knowledge and excitement to try things out.  The role of the teacher is to observe students and push them when they are choosing too easy an option to complete the task or to gently direct then toward a simpler alternative when it is clear that their knowledge is not up to their lofty, though probably very creative, designs.

The second, students are tested to ascertain their level of ability and are then streamed into classes with students of similar ability.  The teacher will then teach at a particular level and expect that all students can keep up because they teach from the level that those students achieved their results.

Both examples appear to differentiate, but I believe that the first is a very powerful way to do so while the second is bordering on “token differentiation” because it differentiates based purely on a single snapshot in time and does not take into account the day to day factors that may ultimately have a larger impact on student learning.  Even within a streamed classroom there will be such a range of abilities and learning styles that it is not truly differentiated.  It is understandable, but not justifiable, that teachers would gravitate towards the streaming model because it is easier and potentially less stressful.  

What are the challenges to differentiated learning?
Following is a list of some of the challenges to differentiated teaching and learning and a brief description where applicable.  This should give an idea of just how difficult the task will be for teachers and schools to implement this widely:
  1. It takes a lot of energy to keep track of individual students progress in a task.
  2. There is no simple method of recording progress.  There is no simple percentage of work completed correctly under differentiation.
  3. It is immensely difficult to report back to parents how their children are doing.  How can someone trained in a very particular and technical skill (teaching) explain the progress in a way that is meaningful to parents untrained in these skills.  Percentages or levels of results are easy to see but when there is no clear standard, any comments are meaningless.  I would say that most parents will have a good idea of their child’s progress if they regularly talk with them and observe them at home, but this is not necessarily something that translates into something you can communicate to a potential employer.
  4. It is almost impossible to design a course when you don’t know the abilities of the students you will have in the year(s) to come.  This means that a lot of planning must be done “on the fly” or rushed during brief moments of non-contact time.
  5. Teachers have to be highly capable and experienced in a very wide range of skills, knowledge, and character traits.  They will have to demonstrate that they are good learners.
  6. A wide range of resources must be available or readily accessible for student’s to try out their ideas as they come up.  It’s no good getting equipment in a week down the track because the students may have lost interest by then, or moved on to the next thing.
  7. Many people who grew up under the industrial, mass production, system will not be able to relate to differentiated learning without a lot of mental effort.  This is a huge barrier, along with the tendency to use those cop-out and token methods.  Informing students, parents, potential employers, and other members of the community about the nature of differentiated learning, and the power of it to improve overall levels of ability, is a huge challenge.  The people who it is meant to serve must believe in it or there will be no support for teachers trying to teach in this way.
  8. Methods of differentiated learning will take time to develop.  Teachers need the space to think about this and work out how to incorporate it into their practice.  Teachers don’t currently have the time to do this.
  9. Small class sizes are essential to teachers differentiating in their practice, but that would mean classes of about 15 maximum, and this would require twice the amount of teachers than we currently have in secondary schools.

We can see that differentiated learning will really meet the wide range of needs of our learners.  Unfortunately, there are many challenges to overcome in making it work, and it is quite unfair to expect teachers to change overnight without a lot of support and time to adapt thinking and practice.  I am convinced that it is worth trying to change the system, so I will do my bit according to the abilities and time I have available.  Life is differentiated, so learning must also be differentiated in order to successfully prepare learners for life.