Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Differentiation is not enough.

One of my favorite posts of 2013 (and the chart  that accompanies it ) was written by Barbara Bray entitled “Personalized Learning is Not Differentiating Instruction”.  While I didn’t write about it at the time, I had a copy of the chart on my desk for several months. Several times a week I would see it out of the corner of my eye and I would reflect on what it meant to me as a teacher. Spending just a few minutes with the chart and the post itself would seemingly present a vision of what classrooms should look like presently as well as some clear cut goals for educators.

Many years ago, differentiation became an educational buzzword that myself and many in education loathed to hear.  When something wasn’t working in your classroom, the rallying cry became “Just differentiate!”  None of us knew what differentiation looked like or how we would even do it for our students. I often “taught” from a textbook, with desks in straight rows, and any learning that occurred was by luck and sheer happenstance. I began experimenting with offering different types of assessments as well as offering different ways for students to access content. It was as if offering kids...gasp...CHOICES for how they wanted to learn and how they wanted to show what they knew and could do became a gateway to a different type of classroom.

Along the way I picked up a lot of tricks from colleagues in my physical location as well as in the communities I was learning alongside online. For example, differentiating homework, taking  time in class to involve students in decision making, co-creating rubrics, brainstorming and creative problem solving, individual conferencing as often as possible. But all of these ideas required massive shifts in how I thought about teaching and learning. Mostly, it forced me to accept that teaching is NOT learning. I had spent a bulk of my career so consumed with the role that I needed to play, I had completely disregarded the learners themselves.

As teachers begin to play with many of these ideas, they realize how much effort and energy it takes to create a classroom environment that places trust and responsibility on the learners. They also realize how little our current systems are set up to truly support these kinds of classrooms.  Educators realize they are limited by bell schedules, pre-conceived notions of what teaching should look like from parents and administrators, and a game of chicken with students who are used to just sitting in their seat and collecting A’s for being awake. I have long been a proponent and believer in computers and  technology as a great equalizer. When used well, it can provide opportunities for differentiation, individualization, and/or personalization. It can open up lines of communication and create transparency. It can provide more choices and learning paths than ever before. But none of this matters without the vision or commitment to putting the learners first. It’s easy to say we are kid-centered. It’s much more difficult to live it.

When I reflect on this chart, it both humbles and angers me. On one hand, it reminds me that I failed countless learners because I made my classroom about me the teacher, instead of them: the learners. When we as educators are unable to check our ego’s at the door, we are about teaching, not learning. When we fail to fully integrate students in their individual learning processes, we are about teaching, not learning. When we claim the attitude “My job is to teach, their job is to learn.” we are about teaching, not learning. When we verbalize to our colleagues  “ Hey, I taught it, they should have learned  it”, we are about teaching, not learning.  

On the other hand, it provides me a solid vision of the kind of learning experience I want to create for my students each and every day. Phrases like “career and college ready” get thrown around often without enough discussion or agreement on what that truly means for our students. Is it my job to prepare kids for the current world? Or is it my job to prepare them to be mature learners for a world that hasn’t yet materialized. Statistics abound that support the fact that we are indeed preparing our students for jobs that do not currently exist and a world we as adults can hardly envision. It’s not enough to differentiate or even individualize.

There is one universal truth, all learning is personal.

Anything less is just teaching.

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