opportunity to learnSo I have a new book, Creating the Opportunity to Learn, just in from the ASCD. And it has given me pause to reflect once again. Their emphasis in the title is on ‘the’ and the authors, A. Wade Boykin and Pedro Noguera, explore the possibility, the opportunity to learn, the opportunity of closing the achievement gap and doing so by addressing the contexts in which the learning take place.
It was with the intention of addressing the learning context of my middle school class that I read with interest earlier this year Carol Ann Tomlinson and Marcia B. Imbeau’s book Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom. I have tried to recall what we called differentiation when I was going through my initial teacher training. I remember a unit, which failed to engage most of us, called Diagnostic Teaching. The idea being that we would use our teaching to diagnose where students were at and so be able to direct their learning better, creating programs that would meet their learning needs. And all that within the context of the curriculum. So we learned to accommodate and make adaptations to enable our students to be part of the classroom. The focus was not on inclusion per se, more on ensuring their educational progress. Teacher aides were vital for the success of this approach, they would implement what we would write, the worksheets we created for our ‘disabled’ students, and often mark and assess the students on our behalf. But the reality was that on the whole, we ignored students with differences, those at the top end were often given an extra worksheet to do, those at the bottom were removed for remedial classes. And if we were lucky to be working in a bigger school, then classes were streamed. Either way as teachers we taught a ‘homogenised’ group in the middle.
Differentiation  has changed our focus. This has been in response to the inclusive education movement that has permeated the educational landscape in the last 20 years. Differentiation focuses our attention back onto all our students – helping us to understand that differences in our students do matter and that quality teaching makes room for these differences, giving all our students the opportunity to learn. The one-size-fits-all approach fails significantly for many of the students in our very diverse classrooms. So how is differentiation different?
Tomlinson and Imbeau describe differentiation as a philosophy, a way of thinking about teaching and  learning, a set of principles if you will that create the opportunity to learn for all students. And it requires rethinking your classroom practice through an ongoing process of trial, reflection and adjustment. Actually reminds a little bit of action research. The approach brings together Lorna Earl’s Assessment as learning approach, the creation of a positive learning environment, a well thought out curriculum (perhaps using McTighe and Wiggins Understanding by Design approach) and of course flexible classroom delivery.
Sounds complex? That is because it is – and one more reason why new teachers truly need a good mentor and extra time to embed good practices in their classroom. I am going to explore that more in my next post – Overcoming the complexity of differentiation.
Creating the Opportunity to Learn
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4 thoughts on “Creating the Opportunity to Learn

  • Probably off topic but this is where your piece led me so …..the thing that struck me in this article was the use of the term differentiation, which in my field has a different connotation.
    Differentiation is a measure of how well an individual has managed to separate themselves from their parents and create a separate and unique identity, further to what degree they are able to maintain that persona when amongst their family of origin or do they revert back to their assigned familiar role.
    I wonder how many people have managed to truly differentiate themselves when learning too, and how many simply revert back to the labels assigned to them in primary school. How many teachers when diagnosing their students are able to consider not just the perceived abilities or potential of a student, but their actual potential when provided with an environment that leads them to believe they are capable despite their internal belief system?
    Thinking here of a certain person who sat on a back stoop and translated assignments from education speak into English for a highly distraught student…..in this case it was the student that needed mentoring to enable them to step outside their comfort zone and start to differentiate themselves from past diagnoses 


  • I think the meanings have the potential to overlap. Even in the sense that it is used by these authors, they discuss the need for working together with the students and together building the classroom community. But yet it is the teacher who must differentiate instruction, the students who must understand why different approaches are needed. Teachers lead and manage, students are led.

    What you propose, and as I know, coming out of the counselling literature, is a much greater ownership by students – and I doubt that many teachers are ready for that yet. Or in fact many student. One of the ‘problems’ I hit was in fact from the students themselves. As you suggest with your recollection 🙂

  • Yep – I like your apt use of scare quotes to parenthesise disability in students. Of course, disability refers to the issues society has with difference. So inclusivity is precluded by a society that is unable (unwilling?) to deal with difference. A classroom is a society of sorts – differentiation of instruction/learning/curriculum may only occur when the class (teacher/facilitator and students) genuinely embrace inclusion and celebrate diversity. That students and teachers find that step hard is not really news, because the broader society models disability, and so being inclusive means being different…

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