We had an interesting conversation going on another thread about this concept of differentiated instruction. What is it? What does it have to do with the new common core standards? How do teachers know what to do? How do parents know if teachers are doing it correctly? It’s a big can of worms, so we went to a source we personally know for some answers.
Ella Smith is a special education inclusion science teacher at North Springs High School in Fulton County. A resident of DeKalb, Ella ran for school board in 2008, but was defeated by Don McChesney. Ella has written posts for DeKalb School Watch in the past, and has graciously shared her knowledge of differentiated instruction below. READ ON:
Today’s teachers find a variety of needs in a classroom, from gifted/advanced students who need enrichment, to students with many different special needs. Differentiation is a response to being able to teach all the students using different means due to one size not fitting all the needs of all students. It means as teachers we are becoming proactive and being forced to plan varied approaches to what students need to learn, how the different students will learn the standard and how the students will show that they have learned the standard. The presentation does need to be in many different modalities to reach more students also. Students may show they have learned the standards in many ways. In pre-test students may show they already understand the standard, and they can receive enrichment or go on to another standard they may not have mastered earlier in the year or they may go ahead and start working on a new standard.
A teacher could have different tests for different students depending on their vocabulary, their reading level and their abilities. However, it does mean different things depending on the needs of the student and the teaching situation. Many times a teacher will group students in their classroom. Sometimes students may even be grouped in different classrooms. In the same classroom, a teacher could have different assignments at stations or projects based assignments, which takes into account the level of the students or how the particular student learns best. Teachers could even work together and divide the students according to the pre-test or the level of understanding of a standard, which may or may not have anything to do with ability level. As team teachers, we divide the students frequently and in ways that have nothing to do with special needs. One of us may do enrichment while the other one continues to work on the standard that a group of students did not appear to have mastered yet.
So many people are so afraid of the fairness of these practices. However, the new teacher’s evaluation tools include a tool that evaluates if the teacher is providing differentiated instruction. It is becoming a requirement of all teachers. Another issue that is changing is how we grade students. Next year at North Springs High School, we will grade whether a student has mastered a particular standard. There will not be A’s or B’s or C’s as in the past. The new grading system will break down each standard and show if the student has mastered each particular standard. I have not done this yet so I am sure it will be an interesting year. I have only received minor in-service training on this. I am not sure if we are a pilot or not but it is my understanding that this type of grading system is coming to all within the state.
After the new grading goes into affect, you will have a great deal of differentiated instruction in a classroom because teachers must go back and remediate students who did not master a standard. Teachers are expected to do this now, but many continue on with the next standard regardless of whether all students have mastered the current standard. Differentiation means that students in the classroom will frequently be working on different standards. This will be the norm.
In getting away from grades as we know them and concentrating on each student mastering each standard, differentiated instruction will be an every day occurrence in all classes. The fairness of this approach will be that all students must show they have mastered the particular standard and this could be shown in many different ways. It does not always have to be a test, but it could be several different tests on several different reading levels or project-based learning.
Differentiated instruction is a response to all the needs of students in a classroom and it is a means for teachers to be proactive and plan for all the different needs. It may involve many different things depending on the situation and the creativity of the teacher. Since it will be part of the new evaluation tool for teachers it is a necessity for teachers to show differentiated instructions in their lesson plans and in their presentation of material to different students with different needs regardless of what these needs may be. It is a very difficult task and it makes teaching even more difficult.