Differentiating the Curriculum for senior students

Today was my first official day at my new school, and as is typical here in the ACT it was a whole school professional learning day. The topic that the school decided on last year was differentiation – ensuring that all students can access the curriculum and have opportunities to show their learning regardless of any disabilities or learning difficulties that may create barriers for them to succeed. It is a topic I’ve done many PL sessions on in the past, so whilst I think the day itself was well organised and run, I didn’t feel like there was much “new” information presented for me to take in.

That said, one thing I was really impressed with was the way staff conducted themselves during the day – it is clearly something that the school has identified as an area that needs to be improved on this year. While these events tend to be a lot of information presenting, there were opportunities to get details that were specific to the needs of students in my classes so it wasn’t so general as to be of limited use.

We were provided with some resources to look at before attending, exploring differentiation and/or diversity from a range of perspective. Websites, presentations, videos, policy documents – it was a pretty good collection of readings that addressed many of the aspects that are important to understand the issues and complexities of differentiating successfully. Of course, Gardner and Bloom’s came up, as did the work of Maker and others known for their differentiation research, but it was interesting to see where the emphasis on differentiation is placed by various educational jurisdictions. Some tend to focus on the gifted and talented end of the spectrum, while others look very much as disability and severe learning difficulties. Our interpretation was much broader, and tries to capture students who, for any reason, may hit a barrier to learning. These could include the above, but may also be as simple as moving around a lot due to a parent working for Defence, being a non-native speaker, being independent and needing to balance work as well as school or in more extreme cases being a primary carer for a relative at home, among others.

The video below is just one of the resources – I’ve provided links to everything at the end of this post if you want to explore some of them on your own. This one provides a good starting point for thinking about the importance of keeping students engaged with their learning through variety, and ensuring that school doesn’t just end up being a waste of time (for all involved).

One of our sessions consisted of us choosing from 8 different activities and working in small groups to either consider some of the issues surrounding differentiation or to work through a differentiation activity. I found a few of these interesting for a couple of reasons:

  1. Differentiation strategies abound on the net for primary school teachers. Adapt one of more to a college setting.
  2. To what extent does differentiation differ from simply good teaching?
  3. Choose a model of differentiation (or make up your own) and use it to develop a differentiated lesson or unit of work.
  4. Write a soliloquy/sonnet/dramatic monologue from the learning environment to the teachers of the college.
  5. Evaluate a differentiation strategy of model of differentiation.
  6. Why do some of our most gifted students get bored in class?
  7. To what extent is differentiation a ‘machine-gun’ approach to the teaching of students with diverse needs? Aim, pull the trigger and hope for the best!
  8. Choose any content. Fill out the boxes in the Blooms-Gardner’s matrix.

I worked with one of the science teachers on the last activity, mainly because I have done quite a bit in the past on this topic and I thought I’d go to the smallest group and contribute there. We only had about 25 minutes to work on our matrix, but the result of that (which we’ll probably go back to and refine at some point – some of the notes are a bit rough right now) is visible here.

The statements that I found the most interesting, though, were 2 and 7. One of the biggest gripes I have with the discussion around many of these topics and issues is that they are often discussed independently of what it means to actually be a teacher. If I didn’t differentiate within my classroom, I wouldn’t feel as if I was actually performing my duty as a teacher. My role is to instil in all of my students a passion for learning – what they learn in my class is, to a degree, secondary. And the only way I can do that is to engage them, which means taking into account their individual circumstances and making sure that they have every opportunity to tie their own experiences in with the material and activities I present to them.

The best way to do that, of course, is to know your students – relationships are in my mind the most important part of being a successful teacher. What each relationship looks like may be different – teachers and students all have their own unique personalities; some are built on respect while others may use a shared passion as the underlying foundation. Either way, getting to know your students is the number one priority, especially early in the teaching period.

Which brings me to the machine gun analogy – I don’t believe it works for effective differentiated instruction. The image I conjure up in my mind when I think machine gun is of a general target (understanding a concept) that is simply delivered in multiple ways in the hope that something clicks for each student. It doesn’t imply any considered thought about what those strategies would be, just that there are a lot of them.

Using the strong, positive relationships your build with your students allows you to make informed choices about which strategies are going to be effective for your classroom – there’s no need to just spray bullets, because each bullet has already been carefully selected to meet an identified need.

Then, there’s the question of assessment. Ultimately, my view is that this can be done well – even when working within imposed constraints such as the HSC, VCE or (in our case in the ACT) the BSSS courses that dictate what should be taught and when. If, when we design our assessment tasks and learning activities, we keep in mind that what the students need to understand can be considered independently from the opportunities we create for them to learn, share and explore it, we can then introduce flexibility into how that learning is demonstrated to us. Where an external exam forces us to test concepts in a written form that can be hard (thankfully, we don’t have external testing), but for the assessment that occurs at the school level ensuring that how students present their learning is not restricted ensures the maximum success when it comes to marks and grading.

Resources:

NSWDET Policy and Implementation Strategies for the education of gifted and talented students
A fairly comprehensive overview of the contemporary approaches to differentiation (60 pages)

NTDET Curriculum Differentiation and Education Adjustment Plans
Focus on individual needs and reasonable adjustments (23 pages)

UNESCO – Changing Teaching Practices: using curriculum differentiation to respond to students’ diversity
A vast consideration of the topic of differentiation notable for the international perspective it brings and the breadth of disadvantage that forms its context. (109 pages)

Basics of Differentiation
A fairly thorough example of how student choice boards can be applied.  The example considered is on figures of speech. (26 pages including some irrelevant ‘water cycle’ material)

NSWDET Developing Differentiated Units of Work
A range of practical charts, lists and templates that enable differentiation in a range of different and sophisticated ways (28 pages)

Videos

Are your lessons fun? (3m 20s)

Special Ed Differentiation – Some Ideas (Tiered Activities, Tic-Tac-Toe, RAFT) (5m 14s)

Why Differentiate? – Carol Tomlinson (3m 47s)

Learning Stations – Tiered Activity, Speech Bubbles, Memory, Choice (2m 55s)

Websites

Queensland Managing Learning for Diversity – Teaching
A range of adjustments suggested alongside some movements in curriculum design that are compatible with differentiation i.e. Productive Pedagogies, Universal Learning by Design (1 webpage + links)

WA Schools Plus – Helpful hints for differentiating the curriculum for all students
A comprehensive list of tips for teachers (1 webpage)

A Different Place – Examples of products
A list of different ‘products’ of learning categorized somewhat dubiously according to their potential to elicit more or less sophisticated performance. Most usefully used as an ideas source for products. (1 webpage + links)

Presentations

Strategies for Differentiation: Curriculum Compacting, Tiered Assignments, Independent Projects
Very practical in nature but focusing significantly on curriculum compacting (50 slides)

Reaching all children in the classroom: an overview of differentiation strategies
Powerpoint presentation that is well pitched in terms of dealing with complicated ideas in an accessible way. Some good examples included. (32 slides)

Extending Gifted Students
An authoritative presentation on the extension of gifted students with an emphasis on creativity as well as some local research on the way gifted students prefer to learn (36 slides)

Tools

Maker and Williams Model Template
Curriculum design templates for differentiation based on the works of Maker and Williams respectively (5 pages)

Bloom-Gardner Matrix
Tool for developing activities that cater for both Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive difficulty as well as Gardner’s multiple inteligences (2 pages)

Scholarly Articles

Integrating the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy with Multiple Intelligences
Scholarly article by Toni Noble addressing planning for both differentiation on the level of academic rigour alongside also addressing multiple intelligences (21 pages)

Effective strategies for implementing differentiated instruction
Scholarly article arguing for inclusive strategies for meeting the needs of gifted and talented students in mainstream classrooms as opposed to structural solutions (13 pages)

Newsletters

SERUpdate June 2010
Newsletter of the South Australian Special Education Resource Unit (SERU) containing a range of articles from educators in SA schools focusing on the successes and challenges of differentiation in the classroom. (40 pages)

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