Differentiated Instruction: Don’t Dismiss It!

This week’s post is another set of excerpts from Jennifer Stanchfield’s new book: Inspired Educator, Inspired Learner: Experiential, Brain-Based Activities and Strategies to Engage, Motivate, Build Community, and Create Lasting Lessons. This article combines a pedagogical concept with an activity to illustrate application to teaching or training.
Differentiated Instruction: Don’t Dismiss It

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. —Abraham Maslow, founder of humanistic psychology

John Dewey and Jean Piaget were both early proponents of what we now call differentiation or differentiated instruction. They believed in a learner-centered approach and thought it was important to consider the unique differences of each learner who comes to the classroom—taking into account his or her own personality, strengths, abilities, challenges, and past experiences—recognizing that, because they are individuals, they will experience lessons differently. Dewey (1897, 1900) and Piaget (1926) believed good educators take this into account and design lessons in a way that allows for, and even embraces, these differences. In his theory of experience, Dewey emphasized that an experience that might be beneficial for one student could be detrimental to another. He advocated that the role of the educator was to be aware of this individuality and use this information to guide learners through lessons in a way that was appropriate for them and in a way that allowed them to take ownership and responsibility for their learning.

Differentiation has, unfortunately, received bad press or been dismissed by some in the education field because it has been misinterpreted as requiring the teacher to create individual lesson plans for each student day in and day out. Carol Ann Tomlinson (2013), a leading modern-day proponent of differentiation, defines it as a commonsense, student-centered, empathetic approach in which the teacher believes, if they know who their students are, they can see the world through their point of view. This allows the teacher to provide leadership and clarity around the goals of lessons. In differentiation, teachers believe that all students can be successful as long as they are willing to work and as long as the teacher is willing to work. Tomlinson points out the connection with brain-based research, emphasizing the importance of a safe and supportive environment along with positive emotional associations to learning. She stresses the importance of having these components in place before focusing on content. Like Judy Willis (2010b), she supports the importance of ongoing feedback and check-ins around learning progress for both students and teachers—what many call ongoing formative assessment. Tomlinson emphasizes the importance of both the educator and student understanding shared goals for learning.

Jennifer Stanchfield Differentiated Instruction
Clearly the principles of differentiation overlap with experiential education philosophy and brain-based learning. All three promote the ideas that learners need to feel connected to and supported by their peers and teachers, that choice and a sense of ownership in learning is essential, and that reflection is key to learning.

The Basic Practice of Differentiation
• Know the individuals in front of you.
• Believe in your students and form caring relationships with them.
• Clarify and create goals with student input—help learners understand what is needed for a successful outcome.
• Plan curriculum that connects with something relevant in the learner’s world.
• Engage actively (physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually).
• Integrate reflection throughout.
• Regularly check in and assess learning, adjusting your plan as needed.
• Teach up with a lesson plan for the most advanced and then adapt lessons to help everyone get there.
• Scaffold lessons (see page 52).
• Vary your route, use multiple modalities to reach learners.
• See yourself as a guide or collaborator in learning and your group as a learning team.
One of the strongest arguments for differentiated instruction is based on what the neuroscience field is telling us about multiple pathways to learning (see page 7)—using different modalities to impart lessons, review material, and check for understanding. This book provides numerous activities and strategies to help educators and group facilitators differentiate or universalize learning experiences in order to meet the diverse needs of learners.

Jennifer Stanchfield Differentiation

Charades Race
Purpose/Focus: active engagement, playful learning, academic review, formative assessment, differentiation, movement, multiple pathways to learning, vocabulary, reflection, social-emotional learning, 21st century skills, communication, collaboration, community building, creative thinking, executive functions, turn taking, self-regulation, focus, fair play, energizer, innovation

Materials: Index cards or paper and pen for facilitator, a clipboard can be helpful. Provide space for teams to spread out around the room.

Facilitation Suggestions
• Put together a list of at least as many concepts or words as there are members on each team.
• Divide participants into groups of 5 or 6, using the Which One? activity on page 65.
• Some team members might have to act twice, and some might choose not to act and send another in their place (this built-in choice helps make the game work, though most people choose to act).
• Give groups time to strategize. For example, they can share charades signs for better communication.
• Have the first actors get their word from the facilitator. When teammates guess the first word, the next actor goes to get the next word.
• The first team to get through the whole list wins.
• In order to keep track of which word each team is currently trying to guess, make sure to have the new actors tell you the word their team guessed last.
• It can be fun to have teams show how they guessed/acted out some of the more difficult concepts. Most groups spontaneously start asking and sharing with the other teams about how they communicated more abstract ideas. This can lead to meaningful reflective discussions around the content, communication, and creativity.

Charades Race works well for characters in a book, events, or theoretical concepts.
Enhance learning and ownership by giving participants the opportunity to lead the game. Ask if there are participants in the group who feel like they have enough knowledge of the concepts to come up with a review list for the game. This works best played in a second round when they understand the game. Teachers are often surprised by who volunteers and find out through the game who has mastery of the content.

Resources/References: This activity was inspired by a charades relay game, FEACH, I learned from my colleague Karl Rohnke who credits his co-author of Quicksilver Steve Butler for inventing the “Fast Foods, Electrical Appliances, and Comic Book Heroes” pantomime game.

For complete bibliography/references see Inspired Educator, Inspired Learner Wood N Barnes Publishing Company.

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