Over the past several months, I've attempted to focus on the role which differentiation plays in the 21st-century classroom. Traditional teaching has meant one-size-fits-all in the approach to lesson planning and the delivery of content in the classroom, but today's students are diverse in ways they consume and process information. In my previous career, salespeople would similarly use but one approach (and it was THEIRS) on every customer, creating an instant turn-off by more than 90% of their accounts. The topic of differentiation is timely and pertinent to the next generation of learners, and I am attempting to integrate this concept into my daily routines.
Many of my freshmen students have diverse levels of experience with not only reading and writing, but thinking, speaking, and problem-solving as well. As my classroom is not the traditional model, I make use of tables and sit two students at each table. At times they will work together on a question, and another when they are asked to begin thinking on their own. Rather than focusing on a chapter, I ask them to explore a big idea associated with issues and concepts, then provide them with the necessary tools to enhance their learning journey.
Another important component of differentiation is offering students a choice in ways which they can complete a specific task. Knowing that many young people are visual learners, others hands-on (kinesthetic) and some absorb more by listening (auditory), I attempted to integrate a concept known as Blendspace into one of my lessons dealing with Manifest Destiny. In using the website, I was able to assemble a variety of formats within an informational context which provided students with a wide menu of options.
Rather than taking the class into the library’s computer lab, I brought the school’s laptop cart into my classroom and asked each student beforehand to bring a set of earbuds. Before launching them into cyberspace, I covered specific guidelines dealing with personal responsibility with computer use. I noted that it was okay to move around from website to website in looking for content which would aid them in the process of thinking about Manifest Destiny and the United States; but more importantly was the need to stay on task with what was asked of them. With no further questions, I sensed the students were ready to jump into what was being asked of them and they were urged to begin.
I spent the next forty minutes in true amazement as each student was totally engaged in what they were doing. Some had logged into videos, others were reading website content, and another segment was listening to presentations. Students who rarely took notes in class were now doing just that from the various online lessons. I did not expect to see such a positive response from my students as they were fully engaged with the activity. The idea of differentiation is truly a unique way of teaching, and requires that I, as their teacher, provide each of my students with experiences and tasks that will improve their learning.
Rather than being a one-hit-wonder, I chose to repeat this experiment on my 3rd block class later in the day. It was met with the same results, and reinforced my commitment to the concept as none other. Three weeks later I attempted a similar exercise with the unit of Sectionalism, and again my students all responded with completing the task without any distraction or non-compliance. Best of all, unit exam test scores hit a new high and I discovered the true benefits of real differentiation in my classroom. Very cool!