Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Everything I Know about Differentiation I Learned from William Shakespeare

In Act 2 of King Lear, the Duke of Cornwall addresses Goneril’s servant, Oswald, by asking him, “What is your difference?”

When we teach a challenging text such as a scene from a Shakespearean drama, we know that students will have the best chance of understanding it if we approach it with an intentional awareness of the differences among our students in terms of readiness, interests, and learning styles. If only determining those differences among students were as easy (and less abusive) as Cornwall makes it sound.

What if, in some significant ways, it is as easy as asking students, “What is your difference?” This article from Educational Leadership in which students share their answers to the question “What helps you learn?” is a compelling reminder that students themselves are often the best (and most underutilized) resource for learning about the variations in our classrooms.

The students in the article attend a school with a focus on individualized student learning, so don’t be surprised to see their level of articulateness and self awareness is well beyond what you’d get from your students at first. They likely didn’t all start that way, and you certainly don’t always need such fine grained information to begin responding to student needs.

There are ways, though, to help students build the capacity for self-awareness about their learning strengths and needs. (Cornwall gets Oswald to talk by commanding him to “Speak!” This follow-up prompt is not recommended for classroom use).

Instead, try modeling reflective talk after a learning experience. Explaining what helped you learn a specific concept or skill can be a powerful way to get students to think about the way their needs and preferences influence their learning. Repeated reflective writing—before, during, and after a learning experience—is another effective way to generate student metacognitive awareness, while you reap the benefit of knowing more about their learning styles.

The real art of teaching begins once students share that information with us and we begin responding intentionally to it. I know that when I taught King Lear to seniors in AP English, I failed to take the time to ask questions such as “What helps you learn?” My students and I missed out on this rich opportunity partly because I didn’t think it mattered in a “rigorous course” (wrong) and partly because I wouldn’t have known what to do with the information I got (maybe wrong).

Even if, like me, you’re not sure what you would do with knowledge of your students’ differences, consider using these remaining weeks of school to gather as much information you can about your current students’ learning styles. In the luxury of summer, then, take some time to think about how your current units and learning and assessment activities might be varied in light of what you’ve uncovered. Use some of the ideas from the ReadWriteThink.org Strategy Guide on Differentiating Instruction to help fuel your thinking.

It may seem odd to plan for a group of students you already had and won't have again, but differentiation is something teachers do, not something teachers get done. Thinking about differentiating by specific student needs will be useful work whether or not you see similar patterns in your students in the fall. You’ll be ready to start responding when students walk through the doors next year, ready to start speaking their differences to you.

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