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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Their take on people’s challenges and opportunities

Vacation, vacation, vacation.  When you finally had enough of EATING AND EATING OUT, worrying about your increasing weight, telling the same stories to different sets of friends, sleeping, watching TV and being stress-free, you start missing work.

Yes, I miss working.  I miss having conversations with kids.  I miss my classroom.  I miss thinking and challenging my thoughts about our units.    I miss being surrounded by this healthy chaos.  I miss the hugs and the smiles.  I miss.  And I know I’ll regret thinking about work while I’m on vacation, but never mind.  And when I feel the want to work, or at least for my brains to work, I look at works of my kids, and immediately I get inspired!  I feel like I have a real purpose on earth, something to be really fulfilled about.

We had a unit on people’s challenges and opportunities.  The insights of my students about the unit are things that can’t just be learned from drill kill, memorization, or homework.  I am not the perfect teacher, nor Ms. 100% Positivity but whenever I read their work, my heart smiles knowing that the inquiry approach to learning gives students the opportunity to have a deeper understanding of the things that matter the most.

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Just some of the things I value about teaching. And this is why I miss working. 🙂

Confession: Are you who you are in the classroom?

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By being yourself, you put something wonderful in the world that was not there before. – Edwin Elliot

I’ve started teaching in a PYP school in 2009, it was also the first year of my teaching career.  While a lot of teachers have gone through different schools, systems and approaches, I am blessed to have been exposed to the inquiry approach right from the very start.  I’ve encountered great teachers, inspiring mentors, and I continuously follow educators all over the world.  Some will guide you thoroughly.  Some will allow you to make mistakes, some will encourage you to experiment.  Some may think they have  ‘better’ ideas, some may think they have ‘better processes’.  Some may appreciate you, some may not.   I think educators, like most people, have different faces— and the best ones have the power to influence.  But at the end of the day, you gotta find who you are in the classroom.

I’m around 2 months away from ending my 1st School Year in an IB school here in Mumbai, making this school my 2nd PYP school.   At the beginning, I thought things would somehow be easier for me as I thought I had a focused experience inside the classroom.  As my new coordinator ‘suggests’ and gives me a lot of freedom in the classroom, I thought that things would be a breeze for me.  BUT THEY’RE NOT.  AND THIS MADE ME WONDER WHY.

“I’ve done this before…I’ve done the same unit…It’s the same inquiry cycle…We have used the same resources in my school before….I know how this works…blahblahblah…”  The thoughts didn’t really make things easier.  What really helped me along the way is accepting my following mistakes:

  1. Thinking that I’m right.
  2. Thinking that if our system ‘worked’ in my previous school, it would work in my current school.
  3. Thinking that I have one of the best PYP trainings just because I’ve worked and learned so tediously, having sleepless nights in my previous school; hence, this should be easier.
  4. Thinking that there is a formula for teaching and inquiry.
  5. And the biggest of all:  having caught up by expectations and ideas of how a PYP teacher “should” be.

I would say that one of the biggest revelations of this school year is:  I am not original.  Hence I used my freedom in the classroom to be someone else, and not to be me.  And this made things somewhat difficult.  I realized that I am now in the phase where I am in search of my own identity as a teacher.  Having learned all these teaching theories, systems, practices, what can I now come up with to create something magical, engaging and productive in the classroom?  Which one works and which one doesn’t?

I took teaching more as statistics than an art (not that this is bad, but I know I could’ve been more creative).  I used practices that I thought were ‘proven’ instead of my intuition.  I listened more to others than what my students are trying to tell me.  I simply didn’t trust myself and my students enough.

Having to realize this early this school year, I took action on how to find my identity in the classroom.  I researched and learned that there are different factors that affect our teaching style and not just what the coordinators are teaching us.  I talk and collaborate with different educators online, mostly via Twitter.  I attend PYP chats, never mind if I can contribute or not- what’s important is that I learn and I try to share.  I read and collect blogs from different educators around the world.  I try to apply what I learn from what I read and watch from other educators.  I talk to friends, I talk to my kids, I talk to my colleagues and ask for feedback.  And I think the most important of all is that I reflect.

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All in all, I still consider myself a toddler inside the classroom and I do think that I am in the right phase to experience this.  I think if we, teachers, want to find who we really are, we would need to be also aware who we are as people.  Being ourselves in the classroom is not about feeling good in the classroom because we’ve implemented something that other great teachers have implemented, to impress them, your coordinator, your colleagues or even the parents.  It’s about having this feeling of comfort with what you bring in the class, whether it’s something new or old, or something…simple.  It’s about having personal insights about what you’re learning from different educators and from your students.  Not just to simply follow what other educators are doing just because everyone’s doing it, but because to you, it really makes sense and it really helps your students love learning more.  I think it’s really good to take inspiration from educators we admire the most, but sometimes we aim so much to be like them that we lose who we are.

Teaching is a life-long process.  I think what makes us great in the classroom is the personal vision and character that we share with others.  This isn’t something that you and time can force, but it is a choice that you can make.  It’s something that I think naturally unfolds based on the different factors that we allow ourselves to experience.  So I say as we go along through this journey, teachers-especially the young ones, let’s learn to think for ourselves and refuse to do things just because people tell us to do so.  Let’s not be afraid to disagree, let’s dare to be different and let’s dare to make a difference. Ask ourselves what can we do differently.  Let’s not be afraid to fail, to make mistakes and to try something new. Create, design, teach from the heart, and no matter what, love yourself for who you are.

What the Kids of India Want

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We were just about to finish our unit on Poetry and so my students started to write their own poems, applying what they’ve learnt about the unit.  One of my students decided to write a poem about what the youth of India wants or aspire for.  I feel that I keep on trying my best to consistently consider my students’ perspectives about many things and consistently learning and applying the theories and teaching practices on how to have a student centred environment.  As I brainstormed and planned with Thea, I thought that despite my continuous effort, I know I haven’t heard everything yet.  And so she went…

“I think the kids of India want to feel that they’re important.  This means not to be ignored, and to earn the same respect, meaning ‘equal’ with adults.  Not just in the way of greeting, but in the way of talking with each other.  Be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.  To let them rise up by sharing their ideasTo have a place in everybody’s heart.

Having to hear this made me feel relieved as her words just validated our practices in the IB PYP.  This is a perspective of what a ‘kid’ in India wants, and it might be true for the rest of the 40% of India’s total population.  We can also assume that this might be true for the rest of the youth around the world. If we don’t care about what they aspire for, then we can all assume the tremendous mistake we are making.

I am fulfilled and blessed to belong in an educational organization that encourages students to ask questions, allowing them to make mistakes along the way and supporting them to learn from them; considering students as major collaborators and making them responsible for their own learning; allowing and accepting them for who they are, and making them the heart of the learning community; giving them the voice and the choice, and empowering them to use them in order to help make a difference.

But the matter of fact is, you don’t have to be a PYP teacher to do all these.  You just have to learn how to listen.  You just have to value the youth.  You just have to let go of the perhaps ‘old’ perspectives about children.  You just have to accept that it’s now a different world and it is alright to be different.

I am not perfect in the classroom and in life, and I know I would always fail.  But despite the challenges I face as a teacher, I’m happy and confident to say that I can sleep well every night, thinking that somehow I am doing something right.

How did God come about?

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In our Wonderopolis Project Session last Friday, Thea’s question was “How did God come about?”  It’s a very interesting question and I was interested to know the answer, me coming from a different culture.  I said to myself that I will not intervene.  I just really wanted them to throw questions and thoughts.  I’m after igniting their curiosity. The best thing about this question was the confusion it caused, I love it.  In our heads.  Sooner of later, in our souls.

To cut the 10-minute-sharing short…

Thea:  Okay, I just want everyone to know that I may be wrong about my research and it’s still open for questions and answers.  (Reading her Powerpoint presentation)…Nobody knows how God was introduced in the world.  The best part is that God is a normal person, just like us, but he is capable enough to earn the position of God from human so he is named as God.  The new fact is that when he was a human, his thoughts and advice made him God.

In my head:  Oh okay, interesting. Sounds like a Buddhism.

Thea:  For example… Jesus Christ…

In my head:  Oh interesting, now we’re going for the Catholic perspective.  But the pictures in her presentation show Ganesh.

Thea:  In summary, at one point, you have to make yourself capable enough to earn the position of God…and all of this would only happen if you make a change in your life.

In my head:  Amen.

(A couple of hands raised)

Keya:  I have a question.  If God was really a human, how come he’s blue?  (Referring to Krishna)

In my head:  HAHAHAHAHAHA!

Looks like we’ve got the different religions mixed up! I pray every day, I read the Bible and I go to mass every Sunday.  But really, who am I to tell the answer?  In a country with more than 10,000 religions, who can really tell how God came about?  This is the beauty of being in a place with diverse culture, perspectives and experiences.  They make some questions best left…unanswered.

We all agreed to research more on the topic by talking to our parents, friends, and by reading more about it.  And maybe grow up a little bit.

Then perhaps one day, we will know.

What Charlotte Taught Us: On Reading, Strategies and IB Learner Profile & Attitudes

At last! After 2 months, we have finished our adventure with Charlotte, Wilbur and the rest of the barn.  As this was our first time to run the Literature Circle, I didn’t really expect much from the students.  Feedback time and I, again, was surprised by my young readers.

My grade 4 shared that the Literature Circle helped them to gain friends and to be open-minded to what others have to share.  They learned how to encourage themselves and each other.  They said that to make our discussions better, the class should show more cooperation, open-mindedness and independence. They added that it helped them be more enthusiastic and committed to reading.

What we have learned from the book:  Love, friendship and so much more!

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“That even if you’re very small like a spider or an ant, you can save someone’s life…”

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“I understand that in life anything can happen…like a spider and a pig can be friends…so even a human can be a dog’s friend.  Whenever I see someone fighting, I’ll stop them and say you are friends…”

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“It’s all about loyalty, faith and friendship.  Sometimes I feel like Wilbur…because I also, like him, feel very lonely at times…”

What we learned about reading:  Before and Now…

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“I used to think that reading is just for fun…but now I think reading is something you can learn from…”

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“…every book has adventure, mystery and suspense.”

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“…I used to think that you read because you can say ‘…I’m better than you.’  But now when Literature Circle started, I realized that if you don’t read, you’re lost and you don’t know what to do…”

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“I used to think that reading is just reading…reading is not only reading, it is something that the author is trying to share…”

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“…Now I think reading is not just for fun, but to help us understand life…”

Reading Strategies that Work!

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“…reading with expression because if we read with expressions, we know the character more and what it is feeling…keeping a routine of reading.”

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“…I could talk with the characters and they would talk back to me again after a minute…my post it strategy helped and re-reading, stop and review and last but not the least predicting my favorite…”

On IB Learner Profile and Attitudes…

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“…respect and enthusiasm are the main…”

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“…confidence that I can finish the book…open-minded to myself for difficult words because I get irritated very fast.”

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“The attitude integrity because in the book the characters were telling words like sorry, thank you…”

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“…risk-taker by reading some hard words…empathy and commitment by reminding myself to read…”

I feel very happy and fulfilled as a teacher that there were changes in how my students view reading. The Literature Circle helped them with their attitude, not only with reading, but toward themselves and others.  I think I’m most proud that they opened their little world to a book that they never knew can make an impact to their learning.  They opened their little world to others, and took risks to be in a world that they can still further explore.

And now, one thing’s for sure- we are all very excited for our next set of books!  Hooraay!