Friday, May 10, 2013

Differentiation - How does it work?

I was recently asked "How does differentiation work in practice?"

First, let's cover what differentiation is and what it is not. Differentiated instruction is providing students with multiple learning styles and levels the opportunity to access and develop skills in the classroom. Differentiation is not handing a student with a higher skill set uninstructed work to keep them "busy" while helping other students. This is important to remember as it seems some parents expect that latter. I'm not sure if they're just remembering their own schooling and some bad pedagogical practices they experienced, but handing a student higher level work without instruction is a recipe for disaster.

In the lower grade levels, differentiation looks a lot like station work and task rotations. I know it's been awhile for most of us parents, but if you remember your kindergarten and first grade classroom, it was likely split up into different sections based on content. I personally loved the reading carpet the best, shocking I know. During "free time" students have the option to visit various sections to work on whatever they want. Inevitably, your child will pick what they like best, but a good teacher will encourage them to visit sections where they may be struggling. They don't need to visit the areas they are struggling with daily, as that gets exhausting for them. School should be fun at least some of the time. During non-free time, teachers in lower grades will use station work as a way to meet the needs of a variety of students while being able to instruct the class as a whole.

The further your student moves in school, the more differentiation looks like choice within the classroom. My classroom is obviously not divided into content sections as I only teach English. Instead, I offer students choices as far as what book they read and how they wish to be assessed on their work. A cool tool to use with higher level grades is something called the "Comprehension Menu". This is a tool that allows teachers to see what students know and what they need to work on while giving them the option of how they wish to show that information. Comprehension Menus offer students options based on learning styles rather than skill level.

To help your child with differentiation, it's important to know your child's strengths and areas for growth. It's important to know what your child already knows, but it's just as important to know HOW they know what they know. Look into what type of learning style your child may have. Are they kinesthetic? Auditory? Visual? Some combination? Help your child identify the way they learn best and encourage them in those areas.

Even with differentiation, your child is going to be bored at some point. Taking notes is boring, but it's a valuable skill to have. Talk to your child about why they might be feeling bored. I dread note taking with an unholy passion, but I'm still glad that I know how to do it. If your child is beginning to lose focus because of boredom, it's time to talk to the teacher and see what a normal lesson/day is like for your student. I won't lie and pretend that all teachers are perfect or all classrooms are model classrooms. However, it's important to remember to get both sides of the story and see how you and your child's teacher can work as a team to help your child the most. 

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