Differentiation: The Latest Great Debate

-by Krista Taylor

Educational pedagogy can be as faddish as the fashion industry – what is de rigueur one year, can become passé just as quickly. We are all looking for the perfect teaching methodology that works for every student, every time.

Of course, such a utopian ideal doesn’t exist, and can’t ever exist, because education is about people, and people will never fit into a one-size-fits-all model because people are messy.

Differentiation is the latest practice to run the risk of having the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater.differentiation sign

Recently in Education Week, James Delisle boldly titled his article, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.” He wrote, “Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke.”[1]

Whoops . . . the bathwater and the baby!

Delisle primarily critiques differentiation on two grounds: the difficulty for teachers (or as he notes, impossibility) of implementing differentiation practices, and a concern that heterogeneous student groupings (the structure on which differentiation is based) does a disservice to all students.

There is some merit to his first claim. Effective differentiation is hard, hard work. It is true that planning differentiated lessons and assignments is like preparing multiple lessons for each class, and I agree that it may be a near impossible task for a teacher operating alone. Co-teaching and teaming structures are an important way to make the task feasible.

Differentiation is made easier in a co-teaching model. Co-teachers are able to share the extra work that comes with differentiation, and differentiation practices maximize the benefits of co-teaching. Other forms of teaming can also lighten the differentiation burden through collaboration and the sharing of lessons and materials.

I find Delisle’s second claim more worrying as it touches on fairness and equity in education. The homogenous groupings he proposes are more commonly called “tracking.” In non-education parlance, this means grouping students of similar abilities together – often identified as “honors,” “grade-level,” and “remedial” tracks. This implies that the only measure of a student’s ability is an academic one, and that students benefit when they are surrounded by others most like them in terms of academic skill.

This is backward progress. Studies have established that students placed in lower-track programs do not perform as well as students in mixed-ability settings.[2] Neuroscience has proven that the brain is malleable, that high expectations yield high outcomes, and that knowledge is developed through repeated practice and challenging content. In light of this, it is particularly concerning that lower-track classes are disproportionately composed of students of color and low-income students, while higher-tracked classes tend to be made up of predominately white or Asian, middle-class students.[3] In this way, our educational system mirrors, and reinforces, the inequity seen in our society as a whole. As educators, we are fundamentally charged with helping to level the playing field for our students, not contributing to the uphill battle. If we know that tracked programming yields poor outcomes, and potentially serves to maintain the racially-linked economic disparity so prevalent in this country, we simply must not do it. First, do no harm.

But what about the accelerated students? The argument that differentiation disservices high-functioning students holds no water. When differentiation practices are fully implemented, they are used to expand the learning of these students in the same way that they support the learning of struggling students. Sometimes this means that homogenous groupings are used within a heterogeneous classroom to allow accelerated students to work together. Sometimes it means that extension work is assigned, or that the highest level of an assignment incorporates greater amounts of complexity, or that lesson content is compacted and taught separately to this group so they can move more quickly. There is no singular differentiation strategy, but the idea that it is only effective for low-level students is an erroneous one.

However, none of this gets to the real heart of the issue. Exposing our students on a daily basis to people who are different from themselves is perhaps the greatest society-changing influence we can have. Our biggest work is to guide our students into becoming noble citizens; we must provide them with constant opportunities to see all the gifts (not just the academic ones) that each individual possesses. When looking through the Gamble Moments books, it is remarkable how many of those powerful stories involve students interacting with others who have greater challenges. It is in these moments that we see the greatest growth in our students; not having these opportunities would be a tragic loss for all students – equally detrimental to our high-achieving students as to our struggling learners.

So if we reject tracking as an acceptable mode, and, after all, “separate but equal” was thrown out as an appropriate option in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, we are left with the conundrum of how to educate students with a disparate range of skills, abilities, and experiences within the same classroom. This is not something that is going to go away, and it is a reality in the vast majority of classrooms across the country. We must embrace differentiation as a strategy to meet the many needs of our students.

Differentiation is the means through which students with a broad-range of learning needs can benefit from a diverse classroom environment while simultaneously making academic gains. We have already established that it is not a panacea; however it is the best strategy teachers have for making instruction accessible to all.differentiation chartThere are many ways to differentiate, and, like all instructional practices, it takes time to develop expertise. Speaking from my personal experience, developing differentiation techniques was my number one professional aspiration for years. After three years of actively pushing myself in this area, I finally felt like I had achieved the goals I had set for myself in my initial vision, but, of course, by then, my goals had changed and evolved — the more work I did, the more work I saw that I had yet to do! As Carol Ann Tomlinson writes in “Differentiation Does, In Fact, Work,” “The pursuit of expertise in teaching is a career-long endeavor. They [Teachers] aren’t sprinters expecting quick success, so much as marathoners in the race for the long haul.[4]

Getting started, or doing more, with differentiation can feel like a daunting task. It is important to keep in mind that differentiation is not a goal in and of itself, rather meeting students’ needs is the goal, and differentiation is the vehicle. So begin with planning.

There are many ways to differentiate – differentiated expectations, differentiated instruction, differentiated assignments, and differentiated assessments. Add to this the ideas of differentiating based on complexity of task (vertical differentiation), and differentiation based on method of demonstrating proficiency, often called choice work or menus (horizontal differentiation), and suddenly, every lesson can begin to look like a Meyers-Briggs personality-type chart! But don’t despair – most lessons don’t require differentiation of every type, and some lessons don’t need to be differentiated at all. It’s important to start with planning.

The Planning Pyramid is a good place to begin – thinking about what components of the standard all students must learn, most students must learn, and some students must learn.planning pyramid

From there, you can design instruction and assessments that will help your students achieve the expectations you have established for them. Assessments are designed based on the expectations for each group.

Many teachers will decide that this type of vertical differentiation is the most important way to implement differentiation simply because meeting the needs of struggling and accelerated learners is such a challenging task.

However, horizontal differentiation can be equally enriching to differentiating with menusa classroom environment. We know that students perform best when they enjoy the task and when they are able to exert some autonomy over it. Choice work allows for creativity and self-selection in the classroom. There are many resources available to help teachers add these components to their classrooms.

There are as many ways to differentiate as there are classrooms. There is no single right way, and it may never be perfect, but in the absence of the elusive, perfect strategy, we must embrace differentiation as a technique that is right for students.

It is not something that we can implement all at once. Begin by taking the next step. Perhaps that means planning one lesson that includes differentiated assignments, or perhaps it means designing a long-range project which includes many of the components of differentiation.

Here are some examples of differentiation that I have incorporated into my own practice. They are each a work-in-progress, and each evolved through collaboration with my co-teachers.

In today’s classrooms, differentiation is not so much an instructional option, as it is an ethical responsibility. The vast majority of classrooms represent diverse communities of learners – this is a critical component to the growth and development of students as they become conscientious citizens of the world, and yet it creates unprecedented academic challenges.

So throw out the bathwater, but keep the baby. Differentiation is very hard work, and teachers need more help in order to be able to implement it more fully. We need more co-teaching pairs, more opportunities for teaming and collaboration, more teacher training, and more resources that have valuable differentiation options embedded within them. In addition, we must push back against the message that every student should cross the same bar at the sadifferentiation cartoonme time, and replace it with the idea that every student must be pushed forward in their individual learning.

You will get no argument from me about the challenges that differentiation entails, but meeting these challenges while respecting the dignity of each learner is, in my mind, a moral imperative. No one can tackle it all at once, but we each must find a place to begin or to grow. It’s no different from what we ask of our students.

 

[1] Delisle, James R. “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.” Education Week 34.15 (2015): 28+. Print.

[2] Welner, Kevin. “The Bottom Line on Student Tracking.” The Washington Post(2013): n. pag. Print.

[3] Tomlinson, Carol Ann. “Differentiation Does, in Fact, Work.” Education Week. N.p., 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.

[4] Tomlinson, Carol Ann. “Differentiation Does, in Fact, Work.” Education Week. p. 26, 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.

 

Student-Led Conferences

 

-by Krista Taylor

Montessori philosophy uses the “Golden Triangle” to represent the strength and importance of the relationship between teachers, students, and parents, but Gamble, like many other urban schools, struggles with lower levels of parent involvement than we’d like.

It is important to remember that many parents experience anxiety about involvement in their child’s school. This may be because of negative school experiences they had themselves, worries that either their child or their parenting skills will be critiqued, or concerns about their ability to understand the academic instruction that is being provided.

I didn’t fully understand the depth of this tension until I attended my first parent-teacher conference in the role of a parent. Despite the many times I had sat on the teacher side of the table, and regardless that my child was doing well, and I understood what the conversation was going to be about, I was nervous.

What exactly would the teacher say about my child? If my child is experiencing challenges, how will that reflect on me? How can I both make a good impression and serve as an advocate for my child?

As a teacher, there are strategies to alleviate some of this discomfort, which then in turn, allows the parent or guardian to engage fully with school staff to support the academic and developmental growth of the child.

Proactive Conference Strategies

  • Begin each interaction with something positive about the child
  • Assume that the parent or guardian is doing the best that they can; however do not assume that they already know how to address concerns.
  • Do not label a child; rather describe the behavior you have observed
  • Open the door to further communication
  • Remember that you are teaching other people’s children; that every student you serve is someone’s child, and they have chosen to share this gift with you.

All schools hold parent-teacher conference nights. In Montessori programs, these look different. Our conferences are Student-Led Conferences, so called because the student leads the meeting. It is the student whose performance is being discussed; therefore the student is in charge of the conversation.

At Gamble, we require all students to hold these conferences at least once, and often twice, a year. This is part of the school contract that our students and parents sign upon enrollment. To manage this, we hold two conference nights each quarter, rather than the required one. Since students lead the conference, multiple conferences happen simultaneously, with teachers checking in at each table to provide information and clarification.

Templates guide students in running the conference. The templates vary according to program, teacher, and grade level, but generally include the following:

  • how to formally introduce your parents and teachers
  • preparing materials for presentation
  • identifying strengths
  • noting concerns
  • setting explicit goals for moving forward.

This process allows the child to self-report on how things are going at school, and to take responsibility both for what is going well, and for what is not. Additionally, when information is shared together, and everyone hears the same message at the same time, it creates a sense of collaboration between the student, the parent, and the teacher – strengthening that “Golden Triangle.”

It is yet another component of “what we do here,” and another way to develop a school culture of belonging. This is illustrated by the conference we had with Deon and his mother last spring.

Deon had been highly disruptive in the classroom – he had more than 40 logged disciplinary offenses for the year. This was a difficult conference to hold; it was challenging to find anything positive to say. It could easily have turned into a conflict, but because of the way we conduct conferences, the outcome was one of unified support. Deon’s mother ended our meeting with a request for a group hug, and with these powerful words, “We are all on the same team – Team Deon.”

Parents can be a teacher’s greatest allies. Every interaction a teacher has with students’ parents or guardians can serve as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship, even if the conversation is a difficult one.   Conference nights can be powerful for all parties involved; never miss an opportunity to connect with a child’s family, to be a member of that child’s “team.”

 

The Gamble Montessori Great Lesson

-by Jack M. Jose

The morning of the first day of our annual fall staff retreat, I was seated cross-legged on the floor in front of my staff, presenting the Gamble Great Lesson, and I was crying.

I would like to claim I never cry at work. It is, at least, unusual.

I wasn’t alone. Others were crying too. Crying partially because that part of our story is exceptionally sad; the untimely death of two students in the same year deeply affected our school. Crying also because we needed to. In the moment of our most intense sorrow, or the series of endless moments of dealing with grieving students and parents, there simply had not been time to cry. And this time – the crying together – illustrated precisely why we need to tell the Gamble story over and over again, as it changes and grows.

Embedded deep in the Montessori philosophy, including student-directed learning , the Socratic method of questioning and the Adlerian concept of seminar, is an understanding that humans are naturally drawn to explore life’s great mysteries. We want to know the origins of the universe, the origins of life and human beings, how we started to communicate, and the origins of math. In these Montessori great lessons are the roots of the academic disciplines of science, history, reading and writing, and math. And those five stories already exist and are overtly taught to students as part of Montessori elementary philosophy.

Slide01

Adolescents deeply feel the need to belong. So just as there is a great lesson for each discipline, it is appropriate to create a story to help students (and staff) understand that they are part of something larger – in this case, a school with a powerful history. This was the genesis of the Gamble Great Lesson: if students and staff can understand why the school exists and our core values, and will accept our invitation to belong and make their mark in the school, everyone benefits. When a person feels deep connection to a place or an idea, when they feel they belong, it is a sort of magic. It is the basis of grit, and hard work, and victory … and vulnerability. It makes it safe to try, and safe to fail, and even safe to not fight.

Slide05Luckily Gamble Montessori was created in 2005, and I came to the school in 2009, so we can tell the story from the inception, as a proposal from some parents. It includes our slow growth over time, the stories of students and staff who shaped our character, and our academic successes. There are moments where we show how we became who we are. There are negatives that go undiscussed. And there is also deep sadness. Interestingly, when you tell the story again and again, instead of becoming routine or mundane, it gains almost mythological status. It heightens the associated emotions.

Key Components of our Great Lesson

  • an invitation to see the school as someplace unique, and to enter the storytelling mindset
  • a brief history of key events in the school’s history
  • reference to key individuals whose contributions helped shape the history and character of the school
  • celebrating the students who have made a profound impact on the character of the school
  • recognition of moments of joy, triumph, sorrow, and loss
  • an invitation to make a mark on the school through individual contribution and to view the community through the lens of the stories that have been chosen

No video of the Gamble Creation Story exists. It is most powerful because it is told in person. However, in the summer of 2015 I had the opportunity to tell part of the Gamble Creation story at the Know Theatre in Cincinnati. It was an installment of the True____ Series called “TrueGamble”. You can view it here.

I don’t promise (or threaten) that crying is part of the process. That doesn’t demonstrate success or failure, exactly. However, in our case, the Gamble Great Lesson still had something to teach us: the act of telling our story is powerfully therapeutic and cathartic.

Jack M. Jose

Paying Back Privilege

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     -by Krista Taylor

What is privilege? 

There exist in America two very separate worlds that rarely intertwine – the worlds of the haves and the have-nots. The difference between the two is privilege.

Privilege is the presence of a safety net. The distance between incidents of bad luck and ensuing devastation. Those with privilege can withstand problems, often without long-term consequences, because they can pay for the necessary health care; have the resources and education to find another job; have access to generational support to keep the bills paid when finances are tight; and can seek out services to help sustain through addiction, mental illness, or disability.

In America, anyone can ultimately become successful, but for some the pathway to achieving this success is smoother than it is for others.

I was a child of privilege. My pathway to success was made smoother by a number of factors outside of my control.

To start with, I am white. The fact that this makes things easier is something that we are often uncomfortable discussing, but this privilege of birth is one whose power I suspect I could only truly understand were it to be taken away. Suffice it to say that we live in a society where skin color continues to matter.   Privilege, however, extends far beyond the gene pool.

My mother had good pre-natal healthcare, and therefore I was born without deficiencies or complications. I lived in a household full of books where I was regularly read to, and where I witnessed people reading often. I didn’t worry about having enough food, and my parents did not have to make difficult choices about the cost of food in relation to its nutritional value. I lived in a safe neighborhood where I had the freedom to independently explore the world for hours on end. My parents worked regular schedules, so I was consistently supervised outside of school hours.

Education was always treated in my household as something of critical importance. I was enrolled in high-performing schools, and therefore, I was surrounded by peers who had the same perspective about academic achievement that I did. Additionally, my family has college-graduates going back for multiple generations. Therefore, not only was there a powerful expectation that a college degree was a given for me, my parents had a clear understanding of how to make this happen.

Each of these things made my life a little easier, my success a little more guaranteed.

None of these benefits are things that I made happen. They are all things that occurred irrespective of my effort – that is privilege.

I was never truly hungry or malnourished.

I never worried about where I was going to sleep at night.

I was never unable to go outside because of safety concerns.

I never had changing, or absent, caregivers.

I never questioned the value of education.

I am privileged.

I know this because every day I work with students who do not have this same experience. Their road is a little harder; their success not as certain.

I believe that with my privilege comes the responsibility to work to even the playing field for others.

Those of us with privilege must seek opportunities to make the journey easier, to grease the wheels, to change the outcome. Acting on these opportunities will bring us one step closer to equality, one step closer to a nation where no one is born with the cards stacked against them, one step closer to the ideals upon which America was founded.

Eight months ago, as a result of being named the Hawkins Educator of the Year, I had a check for $10,000 placed in my hands. It is because of this philosophy of “paying back privilege” that I did not hesitate in handing the money over to the Gamble Montessori Foundation to support students in paying for some of the costs of our program.

It is profound to have the opportunity to potentially “change the outcome” for a child. If I can successfully do that for even just one, it will have been enough.

It is my opportunity to pay back privilege. I can’t imagine what greater gift I could give.

Krista Taylor

An Invitation

-by Jack M. Jose

The impetus for “angels and superheroes” comes from the unscripted words Krista spoke when she was selected as the 2015 Lawrence C. Hawkins Educator of the Year for Cincinnati Public Schools. She has since repeated these words in speeches to various groups who ask her to recount why she gave her $10,000 award to the Gamble Montessori Foundation and the students it supports. Krista acknowledged, most honestly, “this is why I simply can’t be educator of the year. That title implies singularity, and there is nothing about this work that I do alone. Nor could I ever do it alone. We are all teachers of the year.” She does what millions of other educators do every day. Like them – like you – she works in multiple ways to make sure her students learn and grow in a nurturing environment.

Society  sometimes stops to recognize teachers’ accomplishments with awards and platitudes, such as calling us angels and superheroes, or giving us apples. But quite honestly, most people, having only been in school as students, have little understanding of the amount of work it takes to teach in an era of high stakes testing while maintaining a focus on the many needs of individual students. It is frustratingly hard work, often for incremental gains, which may only be realized weeks, months, or even years later.

Teaching is as much an art  as it is a science. When done well, it can appear almost indistinguishable from magic, but it is most definitely NOT magic. Every professional development we attend, every book and article we read, every question we ask serves to increase our skill and our stamina. Soon the most accomplished teachers make it look almost like sleight of hand. But pull back the curtain and you will see a hard working professional, putting in far more hours than the 35 a week that students are in the building (for when does the grading, the lesson planning, the meetings and the phone calls happen? Certainly not while students are in the classroom! “And the paperwork! You forgot all the paperwork!” Krista reminds me.)

So no. We are not angels.  Or superheroes.  We are real educators working hard every day to improve the outcome for our students.

This site is meant to be a resource for teachers anywhere who are seeking to further develop a school, or even just a single classroom.

Why us? The success of Gamble Montessori – according to some measures – has afforded us some attention. Krista’s award provided even more. But it is from the position of having gained fleeting notoriety and recognition for doing the same thing as so many other people that we hope to shine a light on those who are doing the exact same things. Why us? Because we are you. And right now we have the spotlight.

Why this format? We hope that this site serves as a benefit to teachers who are seeking tools and practices to enhance their instruction — or even just a place to find optimism and hope in this tremendously challenging profession.

It’s an awful lot to write down all at once. That would be some book! Incrementally we hope to break the work into manageable chunks, the same way we do with curriculum for our students every day. It gives us – administrators and teachers – a place to digest, to ponder, to correspond and collaborate.

This is an invitation. Please read the entries, respond to them. Share them. Ask questions. Try things out.

Jack M. Jose

Krista Taylor