For years teachers have been told that they need to differentiate, to provide individualized instruction to each and every student that is appropriate and challenging to that student. This idea isn't really new, the one room school house like we saw on Little House on the Prairie with Laura Ingalls. The concept makes sense if the ideal educational situation were created. Much like the fictitious scenario in the show, the following would be necessary: there would be a very small number of students, the teacher would be with those same students all day long and be able to build a relationship with them to develop an understanding of each students level of content mastery. The teacher would know when a student at age 13 enters the classroom and doesn't know their alphabet, they can't expect that student to read or write a novel. They create meaningful level appropriate learning opportunities. The teacher is able to educate the student where they are in terms of knowledge and understanding.
Fast forward several centuries and here we are trying to implement the same tried and true philosophy. The difference this time is teachers don't see the same students all day long, at least not typically after elementary school. Which makes developing relationships more difficult. Another major issue is that every student is different and learns at different rates, yet students take coursework based on age or grade level and not individual readiness. So why do we maintain this system? There are many reasons, but a significant one is because we are directed by outside sources to maintain specific expectations that are measured by standardized tests. I hope people realize the irony of the directive to create differentiated instruction to only use standardized tests to measure student learning!
The objective of this post is not to gripe about the educational system we are in. I do not want to paint the picture of negativity, but rather point out one way I found to adapt to the growing expectations place upon educators. As I continue to grow as an educator and learn about student learning, many times with the help from colleagues, I realize there are many ways to achieve the same goal. In a conversation with one of our amazing special education teachers, she pointed out the idea of examining how and what we attempt to measure when assessing students. She asked me am I more concerned with what they know, or how they show it? The answer at times is both, but mostly it is content knowledge, and understanding that is by far more important than the vehicle they use to demonstrate their level of mastery.
The result of this conversation was another revelation for me. I had moved away from multiple choice questions a long time ago because I didn't think it gave students an opportunity to really show what they know. It was either right or wrong. Here entered what I thought was the greatest method of showing what students know and understand, the essay. The light bulb moment was when I realized that I liked this method for a reason I hadn't thought of previously, that it was easy for me as a student. I have always found writing to be an easy way of expressing my ideas. I realized that even more when I have "discussions" with my wife. When she says we need to talk and I am caught unprepared, I say some stupid things that turn our "discussions" into "I'm sorry honey" very quickly. Writing is easy for me because I can take time to process my thoughts. I am realizing this isn't the case for all students.
You have again made it through one of my ramblings to wonder why is the title about technology when the word hasn't appeared in the entire post. Okay, so armed with this new understanding, I have made attempts to utilize something that many students find more engaging; technology. I wanted students to present their own perspective on the actions of the American Colonists. I asked them the following question: "Were the American Colonists justified in their rebellion against Britain?" We had already written two papers about American ideals and democracy, so I wanted something different. I had recently listened to some podcasts when the idea struck me. What if students create an audio response to the question?
Here is where technology runs supreme! I turned to twitter and asked for some help in finding a technology that would be suitable for the task. I had a variety of suggestions from a number of amazing educations. There were things like Explain Everything, iMovie, and many more. But one stood out to me not because of what it could do, but because the person not only suggested it, but took the time to seek out a new technology, and make a sample recording that he shared with me. Reuben Hoffman who has been a catalyst for my joining Twitter and so many other educational changes helped me out once again.
I decided on using Audioboo which is what Reuben suggested. I created a sample file by recording a reading of the Gettysburg address just to show them how easy it was. I explained what I wanted for the task, and let the students go. I have about half a dozen use Audioboo, and the rest used voice record functions on their phones and share their files through emails, texts, and other methods. It was cool to see so many different methods utilized by students to complete the same task.
As we talked about the task after students submitted them, there were many who liked this because they aren't strong writers. Others didn't like it because they felt like they had to do extra work because they wrote the paper and then just read it.
I didn't differentiate the lesson, but the method of presentation from previous tasks, so is it really a great example of differentiation? Well you be the judge of that, but from my point of view it is a great learning experience for me. I learned another way to have students present their understanding. It was a method where the technology didn't need to be taught, or stand in the way of student learning. Students picked up on it quickly and most used their own method they were comfortable with. It allowed some students to shine, and it pushed others to move out of their comfort zone and present using a new methodology. It reinforced the idea that students learn differently and that I need to continue to offer new ways to illustrate their level of comprehension.
My final thoughts (having flashbacks to my college days and Jerry Springer), are simple. I don't believe differentiation in the vision of Little House on the Prairie, could become a reality very easily. Others may disagree, but I have never seen it done in my career, so I find it a daunting challenge to emulate something I have never experienced. That being said, I am trying to take steps to create more opportunities where I differentiate lessons or activities, but for now I will focus on my assessments. What is important in my assessments is first and foremost the mastery of content. If a student could show me their understanding through creating a short movie, a song, a book, an opinion paper, a debate, or some other method they or I could envision will continue to be encouraged.
Please share other ideas to help me create a more diverse, differentiated classroom experience for my students. I welcome your comments and ideas. I am learning and open to change and growth in my practice.