Sunday, July 11, 2010

Caring and Differentiation

After the comments based on my last blog post, I've been thinking some more about caring over the past few days and how a caring teacher will be one who creates a differentiated classroom to respond to the needs of all students.  In order to clarify some of these thoughts, I have gone back and read a chapter from Bill and Ochan Powell's book Making the Difference, which I first read during a series professional learning community meetings in a previous school where this issue was discussed.

Bill and Ochan describe a differentiated classroom as "a place where teaching and learning are flexible, purposeful and respectful."  It's interesting that they come back to the word respectful, which is something else I've been thinking and blogging about recently. The word respect comes from the Latin word that means "to look again" and a respectful classroom is one where the students are given "equal opportunities for the development of conceptual understanding".

Carol Ann Tomlinson points out that differentiation involves flexibility of instruction, activities and assessment to fit a diverse group of learners.  Therefore the caring teacher will be listening to and observing his or her students and will change the method of instruction, the time allowed to do the task, the materials, the content, the groupings of the students and the means of assessment so that each student can be successful in reaching the learning goals.  Bill and Ochan describe this as the teacher "purposefully designing and orchestrating the multitude of classroom variables to achieve the maximum learning of all students".

Bill and Ochan are writing from their experience in international education.  Over the years there has been an increasing need to differentiate in international schools as the student population in those schools has changed dramatically - at one time they served the diplomatic and business community where the students had a good level of English and were all expected to go to university after they finished school.  Some of these international schools were satellite schools of private schools in the UK or the USA and educational standards were based on those of the home country and they were therefore selective schools with inflexible curricula.  Nowadays many international schools have large numbers of students who arrive without speaking any English at all.  Some of their parents only have a rudimentary knowledge of English too - in fact on a number of occasions I have been in parent-teacher conferences where the student has had to translate everything for his or her parents.  For some of these students the only place where they speak English is at school, for example last year I taught a Taiwanese student for IB Geography who only ever spoke, read or wrote in English at school.  In my 22 years in international schools I have seen a big increase in EAL (English as an Additional Language) learners as well as students who have learning disabilities.  In one school where I worked the father of one of these students got elected onto the Board and then became Chair of the Board and pushed through policies that allowed more inclusion of and support for these students.    Several of the schools where I have worked have had debates about what "excellence" in education is:  is it just academic rigor and getting a certain percentage of the students to "top" universities, or is it one that includes all students and strives for each student to reach his or her potential, whatever that may be?

When I worked at the International School of Amsterdam we had a visit from Thomas Armstrong who ran workshops for the teachers on multiple intelligences.  Some years after that the school started to send teachers to the Project Zero summer institutes and later started using the visible thinking routines.  It was fantastic to be part of these initiatives, which profoundly changed the way I taught as they raised awareness in the teachers that their preferred learning and teaching style may well not be the preferred learning style of most of the students.

Carol Ann Tomlinson challenges teachers to reach ALL students and to do this not by looking at what the students cannot do (ie they have ADHD so can't sit still for long, or they have a learning disability so can't write etc) but to focus on what the students CAN do - what their interests and strengths are.  Teaching that takes account of the diverse needs of the students often enriches the educational experience for all the students.

Bill and Ochan Powell maintain "effective teachers can teach most children".  Many schools run learning support programmes that happen outside of the classroom in the hope of trying to "fix" the problem and then return the students to their regular classes.  In one school where I worked there was a programme called Fast ForWord, a reading intervention programme (which always seemed to be called Fast Forward and sort of implied that the students doing this programme would improve quickly - the Fast ForWord website claims the progamme "gets the brain fit for learning").  Now I don't want to discuss the merits or otherwise of this computer based programme, but only to comment on how this affected the students who came to me for the IT lessons.  As Fast ForWord happened at regular times each day, the students were withdrawn to do it and missed whatever was happening in their regular or specialist class.  It didn't fit neatly into our schedule, therefore students came and went during the lesson.  Sometimes they just got started on something and had to leave it and go out to their FFW activity, other times they came in mid-way during the lesson, having missed all the instructions, brain-storming and so on had had to "catch up".  At the end of the school year we were always given statistics about how much improvement the FFW programme had made for the students.  My personal feeling always was that it was the class teacher who had worked with those students for most of the day, caring about them and differentiating the curriculum for them who had made the most difference, not anything that happened when the students went out to a special programme.  Bill and Ochan argue that removing children who learn differently gives classroom teachers very negative messages:  that they don't have the skills to teach those students and that the education of those students is not their responsibility.  In fact they argue that "the most important asset in a school is the teaching faculty", effective teachers are effective with students of ALL achievement levels and that "strategies that define and comprise good teaching are applicable to ALL children".

Photo Credit:  Be Yourself by Victor Nuno

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