Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Differentiation - why it's easier said than done.

Yesterday I returned to work, and began Term 2 with a day of Professional Learning. As a special education teacher, I am part of the Illawarra Secondary Special Education Network (ISSEN), and our focus for the day was on "Knowing your students, and how they learn" - with a specific focus on the critical factors for the successful inclusion of learners with identified educational needs in the secondary classroom - in brief, DIFFERENTIATION. 

What is Differentiation?

"is the process whereby adults make sufficient adjustments to themselves and the environment in order to accommodate the learning needs of students"

A slide from Dr Loretta Giorcelli's presentation

This workshop, led by Dr Loretta Giorcelli, explored some of the tools and techniques that are successfully being used in secondary settings, along with some resources that teachers can use to deal with individual learners needs in an academically diverse classroom. 

After the first session, we then broke off and had the choice of participating in smaller groups to further explain related topics - I chose to focus more on differentiation as this is something I am struggling with in the secondary setting. 

What did I learn?

Unfortunately, not a lot. Having studied my Masters, and coming from a Primary background, differentiation is not new to me. It's actually one of my strengths - as long as I have a basis from which to work. That is what I did learn - I need to have a guide when teaching content I'm unfamiliar with, so that I can adjust my teaching to meet the needs of the students in my class.

So why is it easier said that done? Well, I'm talking about my experience working in the secondary setting. I am a practical person - I prefer to be given practical examples of how something can be implemented. It's all well and good to spout sonnets about how we need to differentiate, and that if we don't we're effectively breaking the law, but HOW do we do this? WHAT does it look like? 

In the primary setting, I have taught up to seven subjects across a week, and have presented learning experiences for all seven subjects that allow all children to successfully complete the tasks. In the primary setting, there is a plethora of resources that provide teachers with a 'how to' guide for almost every subject. For example, I love the Oxford Maths Plus resources (especially as Maths isn't an area of strength for me) as it provides a teachers resource book (or more recently an online platform) that provides warm-up, hands-on, support and extension activities that all link to a page in the student text book. There are texts and resources like this for ALL subjects in the primary sector, and these are great because unlike High School teachers, primary teachers aren't specialists - we may have one or two subjects we really enjoy teaching and have a special interest in, but we still have to be prepared to teach across ALL the KLAs. 

Here is where the High School setting is different - high school teachers are specialists. They have one, maybe two, areas that they teach in. And while they're doing that across 2-3 stages, they only have to know that subject area. For me however, as a special education teacher in a state high school, I am expected to plan, program and teach across 5 subjects - English, Maths, HSIE (History & Geography) & PDHPE. While I am competent in teaching the HSIE, ENG & PDHPE content and provided differentiated learning experiences for these subjects, it's MATHS that has me totally stumped this year. 

Maths becomes quite complex as you progress through the high school years - things like trigonomery still baffle me - and now I'm expected to teach it!!!!!! And while I've scoured the internet for countless hours, I cannot find ANY resources that provide a how to for teachers that provide a variety of activities to help students learn such complex maths topics. Programs I've obtained don't outline such activities either - they're more of an overview of the topic, rather than a weekly/lesson break down of learning activities. From what I've seen, students also do a lot from textbooks. 

So how can we differentiate in the classroom?

Differentiation is a process that involves planning, programming and instruction and involves the use of various teaching, learning and assessment strategies that provide an appropriate level of challenge for students while also ensuring they are successful in achieving the learning goals. Teachers must remember that students are individuals who learn in different ways, and at different rates. These differences also impact upon how students respond to instruction as well as how they demonstrate their their knowledge and understanding (NSW Syllabus). 

While there are many differences within our classroom, differentiation works on 3 main areas:
  • Readiness to Learn
  • Learning Needs
  • Interest
Basically, to provide a differentiated curriculum that is going to cater to the students in your class, you need to look at whether your students are ready to learn, and if they're not how can you get them to be. What learning needs they may have, and how you can accommodate these in your teaching and learning. Finally, what their areas of interest area, and how can you incorporate these into your teaching and learning at times to engage and motivate your students. You can then work from here, and using some of the following methods of differentiation you will be able to cater for the varied learning needs in your class:

Task: This is one of the core methods of differentiation. It involves setting a task that the majority of your students will be able to complete with a level of independence, and then changing this task to meet the needs of those that require extension or support. 
Same topic, different learning tasks.
Grouping: Collaborative learning is huge at the moment. It has well documented benefits, and is an essential skill that employers are looking for when hiring graduates. In a classroom, having mixed ability groups working on a task means that lower ability students are be supported by their peers, and those high achievers develop skills in organising and developing their leadership skills. Grouping also allows roles to be allocated within the team which cater for each member’s skill set and learning needs.
I grouped students so that there was one who like to draw,
and the other would research.

Resources: It is important to remember that the children we are working with have grown up not knowing life without technology, and that some students need identified devices or tools to access the learning - it is unlawful to deny a student the use of a device if they require it. An example of this is having the student download the English text onto their device and read it using a modified version, or just to enlarge the text, highlight words etc. There are some great online programs and downloadable apps that can be used across all KLAs, for all ages and for all skill levels. 

Pace: By providing a variety of learning activities, you can change the pace of your lessons. You might start with a whole class focus, then break off into groups of individual tasks - this allows the available time to be used flexibly in order to meet all students’ needs. Students who are quick to understand the key concept being taught need not be held back. They can instead access more challenging extension tasks that will allow them to develop a deeper level of understanding of the subject matter or even to progress through the set course more quickly, while those who need more time focusing on the fundamentals can do so without feeling like they're being left behind.

Outcome: Differentiation by outcome is where all students undertake the same task but a variety of results is expected and acceptable. While some teachers have reservations about the risk that the less able students will fall below an acceptable level of understanding, this can be mitigated somewhat by establishing a clear set of success criteria, i.e. "I Can" statements that apply to all students, so that at the end of the lesson/topic students can identify what it is they learnt, and teachers can identify what has been missed or needs revision. It also offers one clear advantage - no prior grouping is necessary.
Differentiated learning outcomes -
same topic, different level of  learning.
Quality planning and programming is the
key to differentiation
Dialogue & Support: Differentiation by dialogue is the most regularly used type of differentiation used in the classroom. The emphasis in this method is on the role of the teacher, - they become a facilitator in problem solving by identifying which students need detailed explanations in simple language and which students can engage in dialogue at a more sophisticated level. The teacher may also employ targeted questioning to produce a range of responses and to challenge the more able students. Verbal support and encouragement also plays a crucial part in this technique. This is also a form of Formative Assessment, as it allows the teacher to change the lesson as they go to meet the needs of the students - does a section need to be revisited to ensure students have fully grasped the concept? We'll skip the next section as it's irrelevant at this stage of their learning. 

Assessment: Rather than using just a post-topic assessment, the differentiated classroom assesses students on an on-going basis so that teaching, and indeed the other methods of differentiation, can be continuously adjusted according to the learners’ needs. Teachers also need to provide opportunities for students to be assessed in ways that engages their interest areas - I often use the 'menu' assessment style, that asks students to complete the same task but has them doing it in a way that suits their learning style.
A variety of assessments provides an opportunity to cater
for individual needs, whilst also encouraging students to go
beyond their comfort zones and learn in different ways.

So for now, I'm going to keep scouting for some great hands-on, interactive and technology led learning experience for my students so that they can access the curriculum just as their peers do. I'm also hoping that I'll keep finding some great examples of programs that I can adapt to suit my class. Differentiation in the classroom is about understanding not only the needs of our students, but also our own needs so that we can provide for our students and ensure they are succeeding.


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