Monday, July 12, 2010

Learning Outcomes -v- Differentiation

This year at school we have started to focus on drawing up learning outcomes and to this end the curriculum leaders have begun to use Atlas Rubicon to map the curriculum.  At the same time some teachers have attended a workshop on differentiation with Carol Ann Tomlinson.   On the face of it, it might seem that we are moving in two different directions:  on the one hand developing standards and benchmarks for the knowledge and skills expected at each grade level, which would require some sort of standardised assessment and on the other hand looking at each student's achievement on an individual basis and allowing each student to express his or her knowledge in the way he or she chooses.

This year some students at school were involved in stardardised tests - my 10th Grade daughter, for example, was involved in ACER testing last October for mathematical literacy (which gave a measure for quantity, space and shape, change and relationships and something called uncertainty which appeared to measure her grasp of statistics and graphing), reading (which measured her retrieval of information, interpreting and reflecting) and writing (which measured her performance in writing a narrative and in exposition/argument).  The tests were from the Australian Council for Educational Research and apparently the results show how she measured against other students in international schools.  Although it was interesting to see the results, they were of very little use to us as parents - the narrative reports written by her subject teachers were what we were really interested in.  At my school there was no "teaching to the test".  In fact, since my daughter was new to the school this year, her scores were no reflection at all on the teaching and learning that was going on at the school.  However in other schools I have definitely heard of teachers being put under pressure to prepare students for these tests (the results of which are made public to the parents) and in the weeks before the tests this preparation has influenced the class instruction.

Many, many years ago, when I was also a classroom teacher, I also had to administer some standardised tests:  the Iowa tests.  In my international classroom with almost no students from the USA, and with many students who were not native English speakers, the tests did seem to be very unfair, in particular the maths paper which had American measurements on (such as lbs and oz) which were a complete mystery to my students.

I'm not totally against benchmarks, of course - in fact in my subject (IT) I have drawn up benchmarks for  various IT skills from K - 12 (though this is under constant revision).  Benchmarks allow the teachers to know what is expected - however differentiation should allow students to reach these benchmarks in different ways.

Back to my holiday reading .... today I have read further into Bill and Ochan Powell's book Making the Difference.  They have drawn up a graphic organiser for differentiation which has Knowing Your Students on the vertical axis and Knowing Your Curriculum on the horizontal axis - there are therefore 4 quadrants.  I have tried to reproduce a simple version of this below:

The Beginning Teacher lacks experience of the curriculum and probably has not had enough time to develop many different instructional strategies.
The Relationship Orientated Teacher has a deep knowledge of the students but lacks advanced knowledge of the curriculum - this teacher creates a wonderful, supporting classroom atmosphere and is popular with the students.  Learning activities may be fun and engaging but may lack depth.
The Subject Orientated Teacher has an excellent knowledge of his or her subject and knows how to teach it so that students do well in exams.  This teacher teaches the subject, rather than the students, yet often has the reputation of being one of "the best" teachers because of the exam results or because of being given the brightest and highest achieving students.  This teacher often uses a limited range of instructional strategies.
The Differentiating Teacher has knowledge of the students and the curriculum, comes up with clear learning goals and has a wide range of instructional strategies.  In this classroom there are challenges, but they are not too difficult (which would result in frustration) and not too easy (which would result in boredom).  This teacher is able to judge the "readiness" of each student and can adjust the tasks accordingly to encourage the students to move forward at a pace that is suitable for them.

I like this model, which clearly shows that there is no contradiction between having learning outcomes and being able to differentiate the instruction - in fact standards and benchmarks and differentiation are complementary!


  1. I really love this post Maggie, as benchmarking and differentiation has been something I have been struggling with in my 6/7 Maths and Science classes, with a wide range of interests and abilities. Thank you for clarifying these issues with your model and I hope I can work towards being a "Differentiating Teacher".

  2. I have been reviewing Tomlinson's work as part of our school's professional growth plan for this last school year. I'm still absorbing it but it has already been transforming my practice and the way students learn in my classroom. There is not real incompatibility between curriculum benchmarks and differentiated learning. As you point out, the incompatibility surfaces between an undifferentiated, narrow standardized test and student learning styles.

  3. Maggie, Thank you for taking the time to reflect on this topic. As a Student support teacher for more than 10 years. I continually spend time working with students in small groups and in the classroom, i wrestle with differentiation daily. I am aware of my students needs and learning profiles. I am constantly helping teachers to define multiple ways of presenting new concepts to allow for learning. Not only that but allowing the teacher to question "What really am I wanting to assess?" helps us frame products into workable units for students to show understandings. Differentiation is not just a make work project for teachers but a framework for seeking products that show real understanding