Tuesday, July 27, 2010

There are numerous pathways to understanding

One of the joys of working in an IB World School is the emphasis the IB places on learning how to learn. The PYP curriculum is broken down into the written curriculum (what do we want to learn?), the taught curriculum (how best will we learn?) and the learned curriculum (how will we know what we have learned?). As PYP teachers, therefore, we have to give equal attention to the content, our pedagogy and assessment.
This year I’ve had a number of conversations with friends who are teaching secondary students about the “dumbing down” of the curriculum. Some of these are colleagues I used to work with when I was teaching in England, who are concerned about the standards of the GCSEs and A’Levels in England being lower in recent years; some of them are colleagues in international schools who are worried about the number of students they are teaching with special needs and how we are meeting these needs. One of the words that has cropped up frequently in these conversations is “rigor” (or the lack of it). Sadly, some of them have even referred to differentiation as the “dumbing down” of the curriculum.
In my holiday reading I came across a quote from Alfie Kohn:

A lot of horrible practices are justified in the name of “rigor” or “challenge”. People talk about “rigorous” but often what they really mean is “onorous” with schools turned into fact factories. This doesn’t help kids become critical thinkers or lifelong learners.
If we accept that there are many ways to learn something, differentiation should be making the learning more stimulating and meaningful for students at a level of challenge appropriate to each of them. It should not involve “dumbing down”, however there is no point in a student struggling to learn or show his or her understanding in a way that is too difficult, when he or she may be able to do this in a simpler way more appropriate to his or her abilities. For teachers finding ways to do this is challenging - in fact finding ways of meeting individual student needs is one of our greatest challenges as teachers and something that we cannot just change overnight. Many teachers are also concerned about the amount of time and work it would take to differentiate their classrooms. In their book Making the Difference, Bill and Ochan Powell make the point that differentiation shouldn’t involve adding something extra:

It is, in fact, a different way of doing the same thing – but from the perspective of the learner, doing it more effectively and more efficiently.
Earlier this school year several of my colleagues went to Rome for a differentiation workshop with Carol Ann Tomlinson. As I travel to school with one of these colleagues, we had many great discussions about this workshop in our drives back and forth. I didn’t attend the conference, so this is second hand, but the main message I got from these discussions is that developing a differentiated curriculum is a slow process. With 6 units of inquiry, we should perhaps aim to differentiate one unit in the first year, and then another the year after. Colleagues in the same team may well be working on differentiating other units that we can then share. My aim for next year as an IT teacher, therefore, will be to ensure that during the course of the year, each grade level has at least one unit where the students have a choice in how they use IT for the “finding out” part of the inquiry cycle, and a similar choice in how they use IT for showing what they understand.

Photo Credit:  Crayola by Thomas Hawk

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