Did you ever have a time when differentiating your classroom didn’t work?

Yes, it happens. Sometimes there are times when it appears that ‘differentiation failed’. I want to share you my story. A tale about two young lads. Now, I am going to change a few of the details, as I don’t want these students to be identified, but realize this is based on true events!

Both students had a LAP (learning access plan) for ADHD, yet both presented with other concomitant disorders, including dysgraphia, general learning disabilities, and anxiety. They were in separate classrooms, followed the same program of studies, though adjusted by pace and complexity to meet the needs of the students in that class.

In a school somewhere in Australia

In a recent foray into schools I found myself once again teaching English. Year 7 novel study. If you are an English teacher, you will immediately be thinking – how do you get some of those boys reading! I hear your thoughts. And it’s a real dilemma. One of my favorite techniques when doing novel studies is to read the book to the class. And sometimes, if I can source it, I get an audio book. Audio books are great, because there are often additional sounds, music, important noises and so on, bringing the book to life. This means that even those students who have already finished reading the book, still enjoy listening in.

But I digress! The book was Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson. Two classes. Both following the same school prescribed program, 3 stages to the final assessable task.

Stage 1: Students read the novel.  

Stage 2: They were given a Tic Tac Toe of learning activities to choose from, to help them explore the text. These included tasks such as summarizing the novel chapters, writing a letter to the author explaining their feelings about a character in the novel, choosing 20 emotive words from the novel to define and using this to create a crossword, create a map of Terabithia, and draw what they think the characters look like. The tasks are designed to prepare them for the final assessable task.

Stage 3: Write an essay explaining ideas raised in the text, through an exploration of the text structures and language features, supporting their point of view with reference to the text (ACELT1620).

My two boys? One challenged himself and successfully completed, what was for him, a difficult task getting the highest mark he had ever achieved in English. The other was on struggle street from the start and in the end, didn’t hand in his work, this time.

When differentiation doesn't work

The differentiated classroom

I run a differentiated classroom. I am passionate about the belief that all students in my classroom can learn and will learn. I structure the work in such a way to give all of them opportunities to show what they can do and give all of them little successes on the way.

Differentiation is not a ‘way’ of teaching, it is a philosophical approach that regards diversity in the classroom as normal and valued. It considers that every student can learn. Teachers therefore must accept responsibility for that learning progress. And in doing so they must recognize and remove the barriers that might deny a student from accessing the curriculum on the same basis as their peers (Tomlinson, 2014).

Over the 4 weeks of the program, once we had finished reading the book, students completed several other activities. The Tic Tac Toe, a mind map of the events of the book and what they learned from these, and a jigsaw activity identifying the main ideas of the book. Feedback is continuous, students know how they are progressing through each of the stages. Armed with this information, students set to complete a 2, 3 or 4 paragraph persuasive essay graphic organizer of their choice.

The instructions are clear. Expectations about grades, length and quality are set. The curriculum has been explained. The graphic organizer is work-shopped (I have explained this before here), so all my students are clear about what they may choose to achieve. And the joint products we have created are on the class Learning Management System site, for all to reference.

Once students have completed filling in their copy of the graphic organizer, which I have checked, they may go on to the first draft of their essay. We begin by writing the first paragraph, and then share this with a peer for review. “Have you included all parts of a paragraph – think PEEL”, I ask them (Point, Evidence, Explanation, Link) over the murmur of shared conversations.

So why the difference in outcomes?

  • The teacher’s attitude shows the “student-first” orientation of differentiation. Including respectful tasks, teaching up – teaching with a growth mindset for her students, and continual feedback.
  • The environment is supportive, students work together. There is a mix of individual, paired and group work. Some may take a little longer, others work quicker through the program. Each according to their readiness.
  • The content is the book – but made accessible in two forms, reading and audio. (We didn’t watch the movie in class, but some of the students did at home).
  • The process has flexibility and variety, with a range of instructional strategies to suit the variety of learning styles and interests in the classroom.

So why was one boy able to be so successful, whilst the other one failed to respond to the learning opportunities in the way I had anticipated? The answer is that differentiating your classroom is part of a journey. The career-long endeavor to be a good teacher. There will be times when you do not have success with your one student. There will be times when you do.

No easy answer!

I can make excuses. It is tempting to say, it lies with the student, because, yes, students differ – then I am absolved. And yes, students bring different aspects of themselves to the classroom – so then I am no longer responsible. And maybe this text, this task, this program of novel study, did not meet my student’s readiness, interest or learning style. But I am not about excuses, rather intelligent reflection. Though, sometimes it is difficult to determine exactly why one student can succeed, whilst another doesn’t.

Not an easy answer is it! Does that mean that differentiation failed, that we should stop differentiating the classroom? NO. Emphatically not. As with everything else in teaching, we pick up where we left off and start again. And I believe that with continued effort, intelligent reflection, it is possible for us to develop differentiated classrooms where all students can learn. Classrooms that are both educationally rich and scholastically diverse.

Classrooms where both boys will succeed. It just may take one a bit longer than the other! But that’s okay. It’s not a race. It’s a journey. Their journey of learning and discovery.

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When not all students learn

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