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 Differentiated Instruction or Not so much Really

Differentiated Instruction or Not so much Really

I'll have to admit as a teacher I never really figured out the whole concept and more importantly understood the practicality of differentiated instruction.  As a high school teacher, working with a 150 students per day, the notion that I could create, plan, implement, and manage all of the pre-existing growth trajectories of each student was daunting.  It was a tall order and to be quite frank, one that I thought wasn't worth the investment because it wasn't feasible.

Fast-forward several years and I have slightly changed my tune.  But devotees of differentiated instruction, may still not like me.  Let me back up for a second and explain some of my thinking before I reveal my new position.

I love the Common Core ELA Standards and the Common Core Literacy Standards for History/Social Studies and Science and the Technical Subjects.  Especially when just the anchor standards are used to drive bigger conversations about the instruction that it demands in our classrooms.  The key phrase of the entire document, at least in my opinion, is early in the introduction:

Students Who are College and Career Ready in Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening, and Language
The first indicator or descriptor under this heading is the following paragraph:

They demonstrate independence.

Students can, without significant scaffolding, comprehend and evaluate
complex texts across a range of types and disciplines, and they can construct
effective arguments and convey intricate or multifaceted information. Likewise,
students are able independently to discern a speaker’s key points, request
clarification, and ask relevant questions. They build on others’ ideas, articulate
their own ideas, and confirm they have been understood. Without prompting,
they demonstrate command of standard English and acquire and use a
wide-ranging vocabulary. More broadly, they become self-directed learners,
effectively seeking out and using resources to assist them, including teachers,
peers, and print and digital reference materials.
— corestandards.org

The independence insight is what has led to my new understanding of differentiation.  It goes as follows, if the goal of CCSS is to guide students toward independence so that they can comprehend and evaluate complex texts then as the classroom facilitator I cannot keep those experiences away from the student.  My goal becomes to provide multiple experiences that continuously support the development of independence.  Providing students with leveled texts based upon a reading measure (a popular way to differentiate instruction) may not allow students to develop independence aroundcomplex texts because they may never get there.   At what point does the struggling student get an opportunity to grapple with complex if everything is in their "range".   

What I'm advocating for is an approach that focuses on a phrase that I've coined called "differentiated feedback".    Differentiated feedback honors the goal of independence of comprehending and evaluating complex texts for every child by allowing every student that opportunity, but the meaning that each makes around that text will look different.  My purpose then as the teacher is to use questioning techniques that quickly assess the level of degree the student is able to make meaning, (real formative assessment) and then to plant the thought question that will force that student to engage with the text, and then for me to walk away.  If I stay, and guide the student through the entire process, I have not scaffolded toward independence.  But, the question has to meet the student where he/she is at in his/her ability to comprehend and evaluate the text.

After I walk away, it's crucially important for me then to circle back around after a couple of minutes to make sure the student has progressed.  To quickly formatively assess the student again, and then plant the next thought question and walk away.

Independence is difficult, but it's our goal to grow citizens that can be self-reliant and self-sufficient, then we must start in our classrooms.  Differentiated feedback allows each student to move toward this goal while at the same time grappling with complexity.  Just my spin. Maybe it isn't really all that different. 

Thanks, 

Chris

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