Thoughts on Differentiation

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I recently read the article of John Kenny about differentiation and the article of Christina Milos about educational myths. I’d like to say that I admire these educators as they put forth their questions and critical analyses (which I believe are valid) out there. I share the same view with them: ask and explore with an open-mind until it totally makes sense.  This is what a real discourse is, and this is how we evolve. In this article, I will share my thoughts on differentiation.

Background: I’m Asian and Asia is very communal. We grow up knowing that we are indeed part of a community, starting with our big families. Having to be a part of a communal society also implies that we live up to the standards of our community- whatever that means, whatever it takes. The society does not adjust to us, we adjust to it and I never saw this as something necessarily bad, only different from the Western social beliefs and structures.

During my early teaching years, I had many trainings that were very ‘western’ in nature, including personalized learning and differentiation. They are amazing and learning about them opened me to a whole new universe. But you could imagine how challenging it was to absorb these for us, granted that our context is quite different. I had many questions, but at that time I knew I just had to learn more to reach clarity. So like any passionate teacher, I strove to learn more about them, I implemented them in the classroom, adapted them in our context, and observed results and impact.

The differentation idea: The idea behind differentiation is noble and sound. Everyone is unique, we could all learn differently, we could all learn best in different ways, we could show our understanding in different ways.  It’s nothing new, though. Back in school, I knew I had to strategize and do things that work for me to get through Maths. I drew all my solutions, but just the same, I had to calculate to get to the answers. I just had to draw first. I drew my ideas before I wrote my papers, but just the same, I needed insightful content and proper grammar.  I just had to draw first.  It’s nothing new, only that in Asia, or specifically in my school, the conviction to ‘differentiate’ came within me, and not from my teachers. We the students needed to adjust to the same teachers, lessons, tasks and exams…but we all, more or less, did something different to enjoy and survive school.

I knew that we are all smart and special. But I also knew that some are smarter than me and that I could be smarter than some- I didn’t have any problems with this (I’m not sure about my parents). But I think many people do because they want the same results and progress from children who have different abilities.

Like as if when a student fails to get good marks in Maths, I didn’t differentiate enough in class and that’s why my student failed. And this is one notion or implication of differentiation that bothered me: that we differentiate so we could help our students achieve the same results as others. This notion put pressure on my back and kept me low for some years. But back then, I didn’t feel the need to question.  I just felt that I just needed to learn more and improve my ‘views’ and practice, because there’s always that space for self-awareness and growth.

The learners: In my years of teaching, I’ve seen how differentiation improves motivation for learning, how it makes learning fun, and how it develops my students’ healthy self-esteem. Students realize more about their strengths and areas for improvement. However, I’ve also seen students compromise their strengths in order to get ‘easier tasks’ and to spend more time with me (because the students see that I spend more instruction time with the ‘less able’ kids). Similarly, I’ve seen how some of the ‘less able’ kids take advantage of their own challenges, to get ‘easier’ content, process and products.  But these things- students comparing work and effort and classroom competition- are easy to handle if you have a good relationship with your students, and if you do constant pep talk.

But the thing that really bothered me the most about differentiation is that, as much as we are able to enhance our students’ strengths through it, it seems that we have also become more forgiving and lenient of our students’ weaknesses- and this seems to be an accepted practice in education. Kenny verbalised some of my ideas in his article, paragraphs 4 and 5.

The teachers: I’ve seen how differentiation makes teachers feel more fulfilled as they could see better progress from their students. I’ve seen how it forces teachers to develop their skills and over all mindset about teaching (in a positive way) and about the nature of learning. But yes, I’ve also seen how difficult and taxing it could be. We could differentiate through many ways, like through content, process and product, but that only means that we need to differentiate engagements, mini-lessons, learning outcomes, assessment tools and strategies, and over all standards. This is fine, of course, but it is a lot of work. I’ve seen teachers burnt-out of differentiating, and teachers pressured to do whatever magic it takes so students with ‘low abilities’ can produce ‘good’ results like the others. I’ve seen teachers get confuse because the practices of grade level expectations and standardized tests don’t seem to match the noble ideas of differentiation.  I’ve experienced all these challenges, too.  And there on-going doubts; only now I know I have the capacity to critique and ask questions, because I am self-aware and this is how I grow.

My thoughts today: Maybe if my teachers back in school knew how to differentiate, I could be a smarter person today. But I guess I turned out just fine. In fact, I knew from a young age that the world doesn’t revolve around me, and I had to actually do something and work hard to achieve good results- whatever my teachers threw at me. And if I don’t get good results, I just have to try harder, or else I will be grounded forever. Even if we are now in the 21st century where we continue to experience massive shifts and changes in education, somehow my schooling in the past continues to remind me of the essentials.

My point is, if we do not understand the wisdom and process behind differentiation, we miss teaching grit and resilience in our class, which research suggests are the very important traits we need today in order to succeed (Duckworth 2013). And if we fail to hone these traits, we also seem to fail to hit the point of differentiating, which is to help students achieve personal success.

We shouldn’t just differentiate because of what students can and can’t do. We differentiate so student can learn how to help themselves to overcome their weaknesses and fears. We differentiate to teach them that setting and achieving personal goals matter a lot– sometimes more than the grade level and societal standards.  Giving realistic standards to students should not equate to lowering standards. And differentiating doesn’t mean that students can’t or shouldn’t learn and do what the others are learning and doing.

If the ‘one-size fits all’ instruction does not work, then one way of differentiating would also not work. There is so much exploring to do when we talk about differentiation, and we should continue to ask questions, to examine this, to suggest best pratices considering different contexts, and to analyze why it works and why it doesn’t. Clearly I have to learn more about this, but one thing I know for sure- teacher trainings about differentiation shouldn’t box it into ability groupings.

My take on differentiation now (I’m sure this could further evolve later) is that it is not just a type of strategy or education that comes from the teacher, but an effort coming from the students and the entire learning community.  Let’s teach the students how to differentiate for themselves so they can learn how to adapt; instead of just the teachers adapting to the students’ needs.

Let’s collaborate realistic goals with our students and make concrete plans on how to reach them.

Let’s not just give some of our students the ‘easy tasks’, but let’s give all of them many opportunities to develop strategies.  So they can choose the best tool to help them tackle difficult situations. Explicitly teach study skills.

Let’s teach using concepts and use them wisely in class, so students can freely utilize their knowledge, different skills and talents when developing an understanding.

Let’s know our students well so we can make smarter and more targeted lesson plans and assessments- by anticipating different needs, giving provisions for diversity, giving spot on resources  to those who struggle and to those who don’t.

Together with our students, let’s collaborate on concrete choices with clear expectations (rather than ‘do whatever you’re strong at’ tasks and assessment), so we can make sure that the students are showing the targetted outcomes and understanding clearly.

Then feedback, feedback, feedback.  Let’s give them individual feedback and how their effort help achieve their goals.

And finally, let’s keep on discussing about how we can show grit, hard work, perseverance, fairness and success in and outside the classroom, so that our students (and parents) understand differentiation does not necessarily mean arriving at the same results.

Reference:

Grit:  The power of passion and perseverance by Angela Lee Duckworth:  https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance

Still Not Convinced About Differentiation by John Kenny: https://johnkennyweb.wordpress.com/2017/07/17/still-not-convinced-about-differentiation/

Myths in Education, or How Bad Teaching is Enourcaged by Cristina Milos: https://momentssnippetsspirals.wordpress.com/2016/02/22/myths-in-education-or-how-bad-teaching-is-encouraged/

Myth-Busing Differentiated Instruction: 3 Myths and 3 Truths by John McCarthy: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/differentiated-instruction-myths-and-truths-john-mccarthy

What Differentiated Instruction Is-And Is Not by TeachThough Staff: http://www.teachthought.com/pedagogy/the-definition-of-differentiated-instruction/

 

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What is the Main Goal of EAL?

Six months ago, I wrote an article which clearly reflected how confused I was with EAL teaching and learning. As I am learning more and more about the world of EAL, I thought of sharing my thoughts and what I have been learning.

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My Grade 2 students sharing how they could improve their English skills

What is the main goal of EAL. Answering this, I thought that a more conceptual approach to this question is asking what is the goal of learning any language anyway? There are multiple answers to this question- we can go from the most practical to the most scholarly ones. But simply put, I have come to understand that the goal is to communicate and understand meaning.

‘Learning the meaning of things’ is not quite a simple task to do- not for the teacher, not for the student. This involves learning within a context, culture, certain expressions or words that could have multiple meanings, slang and basically understanding people’s way of life. The meaning of words and phrases develop with time, technology and even with how ‘playful’ people could be. It could be highly subjective and reveals multiple realities—this, by the way, shouldn’t be seen as a problem, but an evidence of how fascinating language could be.

So I say that learning the meaning of things requires constructivism within authentic experiences, a sense of immersion, a sense of imagination. I know a lot of teachers now are aware that language learning  requires more than the rigidity of forms, structures, grammar and skills development. However, more stress should be placed upon understanding that the essentials of language learning involve global awareness and values, such as empathy, open-mindedness and risk-taking. Therefore, as a language teacher, the goal is to help my students use language (in any form) to adapt to both typical and unique situations, to express, to understand, and most of all, to belong. I didn’t really expect that I’d end up with a ‘world peace’ kind of answer to this question, but in retrospect, much of the hostility in the world do stem from miscommunication.

As an additional language teacher, I strive for meaning and use a realistic and relevant contexts to teach language features, structures and skills. Value local and global perspectives in our classrooms so our students will come to realise that learning any language will help them see the world differently.

‘A different language is a different vision of life.’ – Federico Fellini

 

 

 

 

Number Sentence Nowadays:

New city + new school + new students= new adventure

Non-English speaking students= 110% challenging

DSC_0150After 6 years of PYP Homeroom teaching, I wanted a different challenge, and I definitely got what I asked for. It’s true when they say be careful what you wish for. Last August 8, I moved to Astana, Kazakhstan. I now work in an IB World school in the said city, where I teach English and International Maths to students from Grades 1-3. Inquiry with non-English speakers is my current challenge. Am I loving it? Learning to. Do I know what I’m doing? Haha, good question. But I’m excited to get better.

I survived my first two weeks of teaching. That’s a great achievement. Everything seemed to fail: classroom management strategies and engagements. I was at the point where I didn’t even know what I was doing! I thought I knew what to do but I didn’t…not with my these kids. Suddenly, I was back to my 1st year of teaching. However, I also know in my heart that it is this continuous process of unlearning, revising and brand new learning that makes our craft meaningful.

Again, I was reminded to let go of control, work on my patience, listen more and collaboratively design lessons that are purposeful and relevant. On the brighter side of life, my past two weeks of confusion proved important developmental things about children:

  • Students teach themselves and make lots of effort to make connections (usually with their own language, environment and experiences) in order to figure things out. (I love this bit, it’s inquiry)
  • Children have this great ability to adapt and resolve uncomfortable situations.
  • Children have natural inclination to learning.
  • Children naturally connect with their teachers, or elders.
  • Children, no matter what their age, race or language is, will want to understand you.

I may not spend a lot of time with my students like how I used to as a homeroom teacher, but those lessons when I and my new students try our best to overcome language barrier and celebrate language are enough for us to bond and develop many crazy, learning moments together. Yes, this is indeed the beginning of a difficult-crazy-you-got-what-you-asked-for journey. But it’s humbling and if it doesn’t kill me, it can only make me stronger. As I said, I’m excited to get better.

Cheers to a new School Year. One world, one love. Never give up. Teach.

True Friendship with Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B White with my class will always be a class favorite.  It’s my second year to read the book with my students and it still makes me feel so emotional (as if I’m reading it for the very first time).  I cry inside…over a pig and a silent-martyr spider.  This book is an excellent reminder of what true friendship is all about.

Charlotte

As we went through our Literature Circle discussions, the students learned different reading strategies and had mini-lessons about the elements of a story.  We also learned about different Literature Circle roles, which helped the students analyze the chapters in a fun way.  Of course, there were some students who were not very interested in reading but the roles helped them become accountable for their reading journey as they know that they had important parts to play during the small group discussions.  There was that collective-unifying feeling during our Literature Circle sessions that encouraged everyone to read.

Some thoughts from my students:

‘It’s not only what your friends do for you, it’s how good you are to your friends… Literature Circle help us feel the book (feel emotional).  We can have a mental image of what’s happening.’-  Noella

‘I learned that friendship is really important in life because Wilbur and Charlotte helped each other in matters of life and death…I have many questions that were not answered but after (I became) the passage picker, I understood the passages better.’ –  Archit

‘The most important thing that the book taught me is that friends will come and go…I learnt that since we have been reading Charlotte’s Web, it has given me an idea that reading is fun.’ –  Raven

‘True friends are really rare.  Friends just come and go.  True friends can teach you things of great value and you can help them too. True friends remain and keep a bond.’ -Anjolie

‘I liked the book because it was very interesting and fun.  Also because when one problem was solved, another would come and it would become more interesting.’ –  Valmik

‘True friendship (can happen) even if we are alike or different, like Charlotte and Wilbur’s friendship is very true.  I have learned to identify important words in a paragraph (vocabulary words).’ – Rehan

‘I give this book 5 stars because I think it really deserves it.  It has made me interested and engrossed and I had lots of fun reading it.  In the end it was a little emotional.’ –  Sankhya

‘You can care about people and animals who are not perfect, like Wilbur, he’s a runt.  I learned to use expression when reading…I learned how to write a summary.’ –  Rohan

After we read the book, the students suggested to watch the film (directed by Gary Winick).  The curiosity of whether the movie depicted the story like how they did gave me an insight about how the book impacted their thinking and interest.  True enough, as we watched the film, they were predicting the next scenes, noting scenes which are not in the book and shared things they were surprised about (like how they imagined the characters before watching the film).  They were delighted to see the characters and the story come to life, not only in their imagination but in the film as well.

We ended the unit by creating individual Charlotte’s Web projects.  The students shared their understanding of the book through their chosen products (book calendar, diary, accordion books, etc.)  This eventually led us to decorating our library with the purpose of encouraging other students to read the book as well.

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I’m very confident to say that the students thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and will never, ever, forget the story, the lessons that came with it and the journey shared with their…friends.

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SAIBSA Job Alike Session April 2015: Role of ICT in PYP

This coming April 11th, I will facilitate a discussion about the ‘Role of ICT in PYP’ in SAIBSA-Job Alike Session (http://saibsa.net/) to be held in Ascend International School, Mumbai, India (http://www.ascendinternational.org/).  I don’t simply want to preach or discuss about the importance of ICT in learning.  Rather, I’m hoping to have a LOT OF GROUP SHARING and open discussions where participants can reflect about their current ICT practices, be critical about them, explore other ICT practices and hopefully, come up with personal and professional action plans.

Here are some of the resources that I believe are helpful for this session:

1.  #pypchat 20th September 2012 discussed the role of ICT in the PYP

http://pypchat.wikispaces.com/ICT+to+support+units+of+inquiry

2.   Integration in the Classroom:  Challenging the Potential of a School Policy

http://users.ugent.be/~mvalcke/CV/schoolpolicies.pdf

3.  Will YouTube profit from new child-safe app?

http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestory/2015/02/youtube-profit-child-safe-app-150223201459645.html

4.  Student and Technology:  Addiction or Education

http://www.wiredacademic.com/2011/08/students-and-technology-addiction-or-education-infographic/

5.  York School PYP Exhibition 2015

https://sites.google.com/a/yorkschool.com/pyp-exhibition-2015/

6.  Glossary of ICT Terminology

http://www.ict4lt.org/en/en_glossary.htm#hardware

7.  Best Apps for Teaching and Learning from American Association of Librarians

http://www.ala.org/aasl/standards-guidelines/best-apps/2014

8.  Quick Guide:  ICTs in education challenges and research questions

http://www.infodev.org/articles/quick-guide-icts-education-challenges-and-research-questions

9.  The Power of Student Action in Inquiry-based Learning

http://markmarshall.edublogs.org/2009/05/09/the-power-of-student-action-in-inquiry-based-learning/

10.  Technology Integration:  A Case Study and Personal History

http://www.techlearning.com/news/0002/technology-integration-a-case-study-and-personal-history/65722

11.  Sugata Mitra’s new experiments in self-teaching (2010)

12.  Did you Know 4.0

13.  App Tools 21st Century Skills:  http://www.slideshare.net/zaid/creative-visualizations-of-blooms-taxonomies

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14.  Ipadagogy Wheel:   https://castlebrae1to1.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/ipadagogy-blooms-taxonomy-app-wheels/

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15.  What is a PLN?

http://teacherchallenge.edublogs.org/pln-challenge-1-what-the-heck-is-a-pln/

16.  Global Projects:  OurGlobalFriendships

https://ourglobalfriendships.wikispaces.com/

Unit on Arts (and why we love it)

Unit on Arts is definitely a fun combination of thinking and working.  Whether one is into arts or not, it’s something everybody can enjoy.  There’s so much perspective, interpretation, talent and skills into it.  It seems simple, but it’s not;  it seems difficult, but it’s rewarding.  It’s amazing how inquiry can help us dig deeper about life through arts (see video for students’ insights).

Students inquire on Pre-historic art by observing different cave art and by making one. Materials:  charcoal on rough surface

Students inquire on Pre-historic art by observing different cave art and by making one.
By Grade 4, charcoal on rough surface

I love Arts unit because students get to work and develop two things that the world need today:  creativity and imagination.  I think nothing can be more powerful than a mind that has the power to imagine and a heart determined to create.  I love seeing my students work with different materials and express themselves in different ways- ways that reflect who they are.

Grade 4 understanding the realism and perfection of Renaissance art. By Grade 4, painting on paper

Grade 4 understanding the realism and perfection of Renaissance art.
By Grade 4, painting on paper

Art can teach us so many things about history, places, cultures and life in general. It teaches us to look closely at things, observe and interpret so well that you give people the privilege to see life through your eyes. Learning arts across different time periods and cultures is a great historical experience for us.  Through the years, we can see how we have used art, not only as a means of expression, but as an evidence of human evolution.  Through arts, we can see how our thinking, ideas and perspectives develop, together with the changes in the society.  Students’ investigation on art forms and history revealed the differences people have but also commonalities, like shared emotions, beliefs, values aspirations, issues and desire.  Art helps us understand each other and what it means to be human.

Students inquiry into Modern Art and how it challenged the seriousness of previous art periods.  Yes, Art is also meant to be fun. By Grade 4, paint on paper

Students inquiry into Modern Art and how it challenged the seriousness of previous art periods. Yes, Art is also meant to be fun.
By Grade 4, paint on paper

Inquiring on Modern Art. Grade 4, paint and cray pas on paper

Inquiring on Modern Art.
Grade 4, paint and cray pas on paper

Here’s a short clip of our Arts journey.