Differentiation' is the new buzz in education By Monica GinsburgFrank Pinc / Chicago Parent Differentiated instruction requires teachers to serve children at varying levels of achievement.
The fourth-grade teachers at Memorial Elementary School in Tinley Park were searching for a novel to fit their language arts curriculum and to enhance a social studies unit on westward expansion. Instead of choosing one book that likely would be accessible to most of their 45 students, they ended up selecting three.
Now their most advanced students, as determined by assessments done earlier in the semester, are reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's classic, Little House on the Prairie. Middle readers are exploring The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare, while lower-level readers are embarking on a westward journey with Patricia MacLachlan's Sarah, Plain and Tall.
Students spend time in same-book groups reviewing assignments and in mixed-level groups comparing plot elements including characters, setting and travel. After completing the texts next month, students will select and create a project-such as a comic strip, collage or shoebox diorama-to represent a part of their book.
"Our students are teaching each other about their novels," says Ginny Koepel, Memorial's gifted facilitator who worked with the teachers to develop the layered curriculum. "Even though they're reading on different levels, they're all working toward the same goal." She says: "Not only do they become interested in other books, they see that the Indian boy in Maine and the little girl on the prairie have things in common. When they make a connection, and begin to understand relationships, it becomes so much more meaningful."
Welcome to differentiated instruction, where cooperative learning, flexible grouping, self-selection and ongoing assessment are as standard as a No. 2 pencil.
Previously used primarily to challenge gifted students, differentiated instruction, as it is now applied across the classroom, gets mixed reviews. Followers give it high marks for challenging all types of learners. They say it is an effective alternative to tracking, or pulling students out of classrooms, to address different learning needs.
Detractors-primarily parents and advocates of gifted children-however, say the concept of "gifted education for all" requires teacher training and advanced curriculum materials that most schools can't afford. With those resources, differentiation can work. Without them, it can cheat gifted students out of the challenge they need.
"For gifted kids, differentiation is better [than nothing], but I don't see it as being the complete answer," says Julie Brow of Oak Park, who began homeschooling her daughter, Sofia, 5, last spring: "How can you have a first-, second- or third-grade gifted kid working two to three grades above everyone else? It's questionable if the materials could still be challenging. Their needs are so different."
The advantages The advantage of differentiation is it keeps gifted students with other children their age, says Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. But, she says, in many classrooms, differentiation doesn't really occur.
That's because teachers often don't have the tools they need to serve children at varying levels of achievement, she says. One study showed that teachers found it easy to pretest students to determine whether they already knew the material. But then they didn't know what to do with the gifted kids. "You're asking a first-grade teacher to know the third- or fourth-grade curriculum," she says. Without that knowledge, she says, teachers may simply take the gifted kids and assign them to tutor the other children, or give them classroom responsibilities-grading papers, for example.
Despite the current buzz, differentiated instruction is not new and reasons for its resurgence are complex.
"A typical classroom used to span five grade levels," says Tom Jandris, chief executive officer of Progress Education Corp., a Chicago consulting firm specializing in school improvement. "Research now suggests that as our classrooms become more diverse, there may be as many as seven levels of achievement represented at each grade level. In a traditional classroom, the kids above or below [average] don't have many of their instructional needs met. Previously, teachers taught to the masses.
"Now we have a different purpose in education," says Jandris, who spent more than 20 years as a teacher, high school principal and school superintendent in the western suburbs before moving to the private sector.
Educators also have different challenges. It is estimated that more than 60 percent of children in the United States are reading below grade level. Classrooms are larger and more diverse. Our economy has shifted from manufacturing to service-oriented industries, which require different skills. And the newly mandated No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to measure and report the progress of each segment of its school population. Teachers are looking for alternatives to traditional "shoot-to-the-middle" instruction to address these issues. Challenges for teachers There have been some stumbling blocks. Differentiated instruction requires extra planning and classroom support, which can be tough for overworked teachers in underfunded schools. Additional training is required to reach special-needs students who are moving into general classrooms. Teachers also have to balance the need for flexibility with standard practices that often discourage flexibility: report cards, fragmented time blocks and standardized testing. And experienced teachers may be reluctant to change.
"Initially, when teachers are teaching a subject for the first time or when they're incorporating differentiated instruction for the first time, there is more time required and more upfront planning," says Barb Onofrio from the Chicago Public Schools' Office of Specialized Services: "Differentiated instruction is a great strategy for reaching special-needs students, students at risk, really any type and level of learner. We want children to learn from each other, not just their teachers. It calls for team teaching, collaboration, developing lesson plans together. These are some of the ways to make it work. This is what's going to make it run smoothly your whole career."
But it's a lot to expect overtaxed teachers to prepare five different lesson plans, Olszewski-Kubilius says. "Oftentimes, they don't have the advanced materials available so they can do a better job. They still have to rely on some kind of in-class [ability] grouping," she says.
Jim Gavelek, associate professor of literacy, language and culture in the doctoral program at University of Illinois at Chicago, agrees: "We know more about how children learn, how to develop curricula and how to guide instruction than we did a decade ago. We know differentiated instruction is the ideal. Is it feasible to do? That's where I see the real tension."
Assessment-driven One of the hallmarks of differentiated instruction is that it is assessment-driven. Before introducing a lesson, teachers assess students to determine their level in a given area. That information-drawn from short written quizzes or assignments, oral recitation or simple observation-helps teachers group children, design tasks and plan appropriate lessons. Teachers continue to use informal testing tools as part of the instruction to measure learning, instead of solely relying on written testing at the end of a chapter or semester.
"You're collecting information on your students and how they're learning all the time. It's not just putting pencil to paper," says Koepel at Memorial Elementary. "In math and science, for example, are children finding answers automatically, finding their own method to figure something out, guessing or using their fingers to count? You look at how the students are doing, how they're interacting with each other. Then you can determine almost on the spot when to intervene, regroup or adjust the lesson."
Written letter grades often are supplemented by checklists that spell out the standards and expectations for a task or project. These checklists-known as "rubrics" in eduspeak-typically include multiple criteria such as voice inflection for oral presentations and neatness for written assignments in addition to the core of the assignment.
"Letter grades don't tell you very much," says UIC's Gavelek. "They don't tell you what part of an assignment a child may be able to do, or what a child may be having difficulty with. But when the standards or characteristics of an assignment can be identified in a more specific way, students, and parents, know exactly what's expected. This can help students think about the bottom line."
Creating schools that learn Gavelek sees a need for teachers to create continuity for students as they move up the learning ranks, creating what he calls "schools that learn, not just classrooms that learn."
"Teachers, as a lot, tend to be isolated," he says. "They don't have a chance to meet and talk about important issues on a consistent basis both with peers at their grade level or at other grade levels. This requires
ongoing staff and professional development, and again that translates into money."
Naila Bokhair has integrated differentiated instruction into her classroom. She believes it is here to stay.
"As we progress in education, we're asking more and more of teachers," says Bokhair, who teaches math and science at Renaissance Preparatory School in Franklin Park and leads teacher training through the North Cook Intermediate Service Center in Des Plaines. "Differentiat-ed instruction is a very technical way of teaching. It does require a lot of planning, and you have to know your students. But it puts the [onus] on students to become more active learners.
"A lot of the characteristics we've asked of gifted kids in the past, we're now asking all kids. It raises the bar for teachers, too. We all have to move up a notch," she says.
Linda Comminos, who has taught art for 12 years at Vernon Johns Community Academy, a South Side Chicago Public School, acknowledges that differentiated instruction is more work upfront, but believes "it's more gratifying to encourage creativity and critical thinking."
"Students, even in art, are at all different levels," she says. "If I can give my students different options, they can start where they are and go up. They feel a sense of accomplishment. Differentiation gives everyone a better chance to advance at his or her own pace.
"What we now know about how children learn has changed our approach to teaching. We used to label students as slow learners if they didn't catch on to a subject as quickly as their classmates. But just because you can't get division doesn't mean you can't get vocabulary."
The new basics While differentiated instruction is not new to teachers, it's a new idea to many parents who likely experienced a traditional classroom setting throughout their education. Parents often have questions or concerns when they learn that some children will have different in-class or homework assignments or that teachers are veering from the traditional teaching model.
"Our public has all been schooled in the teacher-directed model," says Barbara Habschmidt, director of the North Cook Intermediate Service Center teacher training program. "But the trend in education and in our economy in the 21st century is that kids are going to have to be problem solvers. And that requires a higher level of thinking.
She continues: "We're not throwing everything out; we're not saying everything has to be differentiated. But the basics of today are different than the basics of 30 years ago. And a skilled master teacher has many ways of teaching a curriculum." Although there are no hard numbers on how many teachers or school districts in the Chicago area are integrating differentiated instruction into their curriculum, the Chicago Public Schools' Office of Specialized Services sponsored a conference in November for more than 900 teachers and administrators that focused on differentiated instruction. Several consultants report that differentiation is the most requested topic for teacher training. And differentiated instruction is part of the teacher training for National Board Certification candidates.
"The days of teaching whole lessons to the whole classroom are coming to an end," says Koepel, who also works with several of Memorial Elementary's top students to develop personal growth plans to supplement classroom work. "We're more interested in how the lesson fits the child, not how the child fits the lesson."
Monica Ginsburg is a Chicago-based writer and the mother of two girls.