Last night, I had the privilege to attend a special community lecture at Western Carolina University by Carol Ann Tomlinson, professor of education at the University of Virginia. I have been familiar with her work on differentiation for quite some time and highly recommend her books as informative, practical and “easy to read.”
Listening to Dr. Tomlinson speak passionately about the need for differentiation in our classrooms today, it reminded me of the many arguments I have heard for making the transition to 21st century classrooms. In this reflection, I would like to highlight on some of the points that she made and add some of my own thoughts.
1. Differentiation leads to self-confidence, a desire to continue learning, and greater understanding of content.
What struck me most about this statement was the fact that “understanding of content” was listed last. In fact, content was only a small portion of the evening’s information. The effects that providing student-centered learning offers for our students are far greater than a particular subject or test. Instead, when we find ways to meet the needs of our individual learners, we are communicating the idea that “You are important. What you need is valid.” Many children don’t get that validation in their homes and communities, so reinforcement of this nature at school is essential. By teaching students how to learn, we are offering them the ability to take those skills and apply them in many future contexts.
2. We need more pro-active differentiation, rather than re-active.
It is nearly impossible to plan for every possible scenario in the classroom. I have been teaching about writing friendly letters for 12+ years. I thought I’d pretty much seen it all. Last month, when I introduced them and asked my students if anyone had heard of a friendly letter, I got several responses. The first was “Yes. R. R is a friendly letter.” This incited a chorus of other letters that are apparently quite kind. I had to re-act in that situation, but you can bet that next year I will offer a better leading question. The ability to pro-actively differentiate can only happen in one situation – the one where you have taken a significant amount of time and interest getting to know your students carefully and deliberately. Knowing our students allows us to carefully plan for their deficits and have a plan in place to address them.
3. Our goal, in this time crunched school environment, is for students to learn as much and as efficiently as possible.
I love this quote and feel that it lends specifically to the use of technology in the classroom. When you are talking about learning content with efficiency and accuracy, computers and hand-held devices make it possible. Using technology to organize, track and monitor student progress overtime will definitely meet that need. It also goes back to the idea of pro-active differentiation. When I can plan need-based units of instruction for small groups of students or individuals, there are hundreds of free and small-fee programs available to help facilitate learning.
4. The skills that were once reserved for the top ten percent of learners are now required for all. ALL learners must be content creators.
Wow. The first point is especially poignant for me. Education has changed drastically. We, as educators, must keep up with the demands facing our students as they will enter the job market, whether right out of high school or with an advanced degree. It is not enough for students to regurgitate information and just organize old information. Students must be creators of content, both original and synthesized of already processed information.
5. ALL students need a pedagogy of plenty – high ceilings, high relevance and high personalization.
Love this. It should be a requirement in every classroom of every age. Period.
Dr. Tomlinson’s presentation from last night can be found at http://bit.ly/dhDvLo.
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