Posts Tagged ‘differentiated learning’

A Quick Reminder from Philly « Cooperative Catalyst

June 28th, 2011 No comments

I step outside the ed tech echo chamber and wander around Philadelphia with Javi the Hippie.  We stop at random locations, breathing in the art, letting it cleanse us from the buzzing white noise of a techno-conference.  Some cities keep their art in air-conditioned cages.  Philly explodes with murals, transforming the very structure that separates us into a shared artistic experience.

Want to reform schools?  Take a lesson from Philadelphia.  Release the art from the cages. Allow creativity to redefine our spaces.

“Ed tech echo chamber,” is a familiar phrase from John Spencer but there is an aptness to it. There is a difference between gathering for professional development and professional validation. I think both activities have value. We need to grow and change, we need to believe this growth and change is positive. I need to know others share my beliefs.

This has not been as smooth a year as I hoped. “I have an interest in integrating technology into the learning environment to support collaborative and differentiated learning within a flexible classroom design.” This is my Twitter profile statement. It packs many expectations into twenty-two words. I felt more successful last year. This year I felt aspects of integrating technology worked better but generally I failed to move social networking for learning forward. I Skyped considerably less and none of the on-line collaborative projects I attempted worked. There are other reasons.

My twenty-four students collaborated about as well as the previous year’s group. I focussed on collaborative work flow routines and I think I made progress there. I did not make nearly enough progress differentiating learning. I perceive it this way because I believe differentiation will only be viable if teachers actually shift a share of the responsibility for learning design onto their students. I find I cannot anticipate twenty-four people’s differentiation needs. I need them to problem solve and offer directions for their own learning. Some people will never be able to do that and I will have to micro-manage them. I struggled with that familiar micro-management because it often deafened me to the voices of those young people ready to assume control of their own learning.

Some colleagues praised my efforts to create a flexible studio design in my classroom. I am not sure administration shared their confidence. I’m ending the year without my tables and in the fall I’ll be confronted by rows of desks. That feels like a huge step back simply because it creates the impression that teacher-centred, solitary learning is the default setting in my classroom. The tables proclaimed the reverse.

I had troubles this year and ending it with a conference of like minded educators might have been just what I needed. But I sympathise with John Spencer’s remark because conventions have mostly become redundant to my learning and growth. The discourse should move me out of my comfortable paradigm, not simply reverberate with accepted beliefs. I want my own learning to be transformative.

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Obsolescence in Education by 2020 – Judging the pace of change

December 11th, 2010 No comments

1. Desks
The 21st century does not fit neatly into rows. Neither should your students. Allow the network-based concepts of flow, collaboration, and dynamism help you rearrange your room for authentic 21st century learning.2. Language Labs
Foreign language acquisition is only a smartphone away. Get rid of those clunky desktops and monitors and do something fun with that room.

3. Computers
Ok, so this is a trick answer. More precisely this one should read: ‘Our concept of what a computer is’. Because computing is going mobile and over the next decade we’re going to see the full fury of individualized computing via handhelds come to the fore. Can’t wait.

4. Homework
The 21st century is a 24/7 environment. And the next decade is going to see the traditional temporal boundaries between home and school disappear. And despite whatever Secretary Duncan might say, we don’t need kids to ‘go to school’ more; we need them to ‘learn’ more. And this will be done 24/7 and on the move (see #3).

5. The Role of Standardized Tests in College Admissions
The AP Exam is on its last legs. The SAT isn’t far behind. Over the next ten years, we will see Digital Portfolios replace test scores as the #1 factor in college admissions.

6. Differentiated Instruction as the Sign of a Distinguished Teacher
The 21st century is customizable. In ten years, the teacher who hasn’t yet figured out how to use tech to personalize learning will be the teacher out of a job. Differentiation won’t make you ‘distinguished’; it’ll just be a natural part of your work.

7. Fear of Wikipedia
Wikipedia is the greatest democratizing force in the world right now. If you are afraid of letting your students peruse it, it’s time you get over yourself.

8. Paperbacks
Books were nice. In ten years’ time, all reading will be via digital means. And yes, I know, you like the ‘feel’ of paper. Well, in ten years’ time you’ll hardly tell the difference as ‘paper’ itself becomes digitized.

9. Attendance Offices
Bio scans. ‘Nuff said.

10. Lockers
A coat-check, maybe.

11. IT Departments
Ok, so this is another trick answer. More subtly put: IT Departments as we currently know them. Cloud computing and a decade’s worth of increased wifi and satellite access will make some of the traditional roles of IT — software, security, and connectivity — a thing of the past. What will IT professionals do with all their free time? Innovate. Look to tech departments to instigate real change in the function of schools over the next twenty years.

12. Centralized Institutions
School buildings are going to become ‘homebases’ of learning, not the institutions where all learning happens. Buildings will get smaller and greener, student and teacher schedules will change to allow less people on campus at any one time, and more teachers and students will be going out into their communities to engage in experiential learning.

13. Organization of Educational Services by Grade
Education over the next ten years will become more individualized, leaving the bulk of grade-based learning in the past. Students will form peer groups by interest and these interest groups will petition for specialized learning. The structure of K-12 will be fundamentally altered.

14. Education School Classes that Fail to Integrate Social Technology
This is actually one that could occur over the next five years. Education Schools have to realize that if they are to remain relevant, they are going to have to demand that 21st century tech integration be modeled by the very professors who are supposed to be preparing our teachers.
(Ed. Note:  Check out Plock’s 2010 nomination for best blog post:Why Teachers Should Blog”)

15. Paid/Outsourced Professional Development
No one knows your school as well as you. With the power of a PLN in their backpockets, teachers will rise up to replace peripatetic professional development gurus as the source of schoolwide prof dev programs. This is already happening.

16. Current Curricular Norms
There is no reason why every student needs to take however many credits in the same course of study as every other student. The root of curricular change will be the shift in middle schools to a role as foundational content providers and high schools as places for specialized learning.

17. Parent-Teacher Conference Night
Ongoing parent-teacher relations in virtual reality will make parent-teacher conference nights seem quaint. Over the next ten years, parents and teachers will become closer than ever as a result of virtual communication opportunities. And parents will drive schools to become ever more tech integrated.

18. Typical Cafeteria Food
Nutrition information + handhelds + cost comparison = the end of $3.00 bowls of microwaved mac and cheese. At least, I so hope so.

19. Outsourced Graphic Design and Webmastering
You need a website/brochure/promo/etc.? Well, for goodness sake just let your kids do it. By the end of the decade — in the best of schools — they will be.

20. High School Algebra I
Within the decade, it will either become the norm to teach this course in middle school or we’ll have finally woken up to the fact that there’s no reason to give algebra weight over statistics and IT in high school for non-math majors (and they will have all taken it in middle school anyway).

21. Paper
In ten years’ time, schools will decrease their paper consumption by no less than 90%. And the printing industry and the copier industry and the paper industry itself will either adjust or perish.

Its easy to miss when we try to extrapolate current trends ten years into the future; particularly in a period of technological hyper-change. Experience demonstrates traditional practice and attitudes are far more tenacious than we would like them to be. Education’s failure to actualize John Dewey’s ideas about education is a case in point. My current excitement attempting to integrate inquiry based, differentiated learning into my classroom is actually a reintegration. I was trying this in the mid 1980′s and I modeled my approach to projects from my tenth grade English teacher at Campbell Collegiate Institute in Regina, Saskatchewan (1972). Forty years later, his differentiated approach is still not the norm.

Never-the-less I agree technology is driving educational reform and learners are grasping the tools of democratic learning. Only a general totalitarianism would stop that. We see tentative efforts to limit the freedom of information, so it is possible but I am optimistic the movement is too powerful. Predictions related to technological integration are going to be realized. Changes in our thinking about what it is to be an educated person will come much more slowly.

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The Gentle Way

August 8th, 2010 1 comment

Alan Watts spends some time in his book What is Tao? describing Judo. It is a familiar martial art to many but I know little about it. My exposure to martial arts has been the movies and the many years watching my three children learned and practiced Karate. Karate is the ‘empty hand’ and Judo is the ‘gentle way’. Watts explains that the most basic element of Judo is an understanding of balance (a fundamental idea of Taoist philosophy). “If you are sensitive you don’t upset balance. Instead you try to find out what [is natural], and go along with it.” (page 55) The second principle is not to oppose strength with strength. In combat, you use the opponent’s strength and the principle of balance to bring about his downfall. We can understand something about artful teaching from this.

For a number of years I have nodded in agreement when an exasperated colleague dismissed the impracticality of differentiated learning with a complaint about limited time and resources. Setting up a classroom and curriculum for differentiation is time consuming. Change is always seen as time consuming. So much to organize! Yet, is there that much more to organize? Our common practices are time consuming; delivering a teacher centered lesson to a large class is draining. We struggle with the young people who won’t fit in or can’t get it. So much of what we do in the classroom is fighting strength with strength. In my first Ed Psych course at the University of Regina, a professor warned us, “Never get into a power struggle with your students. They are more powerful than you are because you must follow rules and they do not. You must not let them discover this.” There is truth in this, but it did dispose me to think of my students as young untrustworthy anarchists. It also introduced a measure of deceit into my practice. Transparency and metacognition were weaknesses. Learning became a matter of overcoming children’s nature.

My kids broke boards. This is a standard Karate thing. It seemed a little like cheating or a trick once I understood the technique. You always split the wood along the grain. Imagine the force required to splinter it across the grain. “Oh, that’s easy,” I concluded. The wood parts along natural lines. It is easier to learn along natural lines too. Differentiated Learning is the gentle way. Learning follows natural lines and frankly, it is less work. I experience this in the classroom last year. Given some basic resources, my young people were more at ease with the choice of varied approaches. The two examples I could give might be a math class where some happily slogged through verbiage and diagrams of the text on their own, others huddled together at the board, and many resorted to manipulatives of one sort or another. Then there was the product our virtual tour of a Missouri museum. Students wrote essays and stories and made models and charts. One created on the now hoary PowerPoint platform. It was easier for me to facilitate and mentor their plans than it would have been to create a well designed unit and force the reluctant to participate. It was harder for me to stop micro-managing everyone than it was to intervene when learning stopped. That seems to contradict the dictum that we need to be proactive about management. I don’t mean to assert that.

Learning in your classroom needs to have a familiar structure. Learning calls for skills and habits. Appropriate structure and effective habits are contextual. Our primary goal is to develop the student’s capacity to take control of their own lives and learning. Tomlinson sees the teacher as the inevitable leader in the classroom. Our responsibility is inferred by professionalism, tradition and law. I need to know my student’s learning needs and interests. They are not a puzzle I will decipher months into the school year. It will take that long if I dismiss the young people as unmotivated, unreflective anarchists trapped in a room with me. Learning in my classroom is not a martial art and children are not opponents to be tricked into going the way you want them to: they like technology so I’ll try PowerPoint.  Empowering students in the classroom means listening to them; they will be more than willing to help us understand. When a child tells me they want to work in the hallway or work with a partner, and please, can we do it a different way; this is not oppositional behaviour. This is collaborative learning.

It was an unexpected struggle to come to terms with this in my own classroom. I still remember standing in a swirl of students moving into centers. Five simple exited the classroom without a word. I recall a moment’s panic, where were they going? They needed a table and some space. They found it just down the hallway. I built the expectations into my centers earlier in the year. I admit I micro-managed a good deal at first. Then I was able to let it go. It is exhausting keeping three boys quiet, in their seats, and apart. It is exasperating trying to reach every stretched hand and murmured “Mr. Stange”. I tried that for years. It was so easy reminding the three boys to be a little quieter as they connected their learning together over at the standing table; young bodies shifting constantly against each other, heads bowed over their work. I’m ready to get back to that.

Blank Slate

August 3rd, 2010 No comments

After my long weekend I dropped into the school to see the state of my classroom. The custodial staff is finished and except for a long bookshelf for my students, a short bookshelf for the media centre and the new telephone system (a pair of youngsters were stringing lines in my direction), the bones of the classroom are in place after the maelstrom of annual cleaning. It will not take its proper form for another twenty-one days. I almost posted four pictures: one from each corner. I want to break free of an orientation toward the white boards this year. I have five orientations planned so far, six if you include the inner orientation, an unlimited number if you remember learning has no walls or ‘standard’ direction.

They are still doing rooms. The chief custodian popped his head in the door to remind me I had weeks to go before the kids came. He knows better, just teasing me. I was not the only teacher in the school. A colleague was down the hall transforming her new room into something resembling a kindergarten room. I stopped in to welcome her and she asked me how my last year had gone. I replied very well, gave proper credit to my crew and acknowledged my approach played some part. She asked me what I had done to make it successful and I froze.

I did have an answer and after a few moments I got it out. I suppose I have not worked out the response I will be comfortable with. I think I will try to repeat what I did last year (which is a refinement of what I was doing the two previous years). Saying so would not be sufficient. So much depends on the needs of this year’s group and the learning environment we can create together. I used to believe it had a good deal to do with the environment I created for them. Regardless of your educational philosophy, or management style, if you have taught for a number of years you know each new group is unique. There may be young people in my classroom who are not ready for autonomy. I have (finally) learned that this too is an element of differentiation. Those who can learn autonomously and are ready to help create their own authentic learning need to be freed from the tyranny of a classroom reduced to the lowest denominator. I won’t know how quickly I can move the class to a differentiated learning environment, integrating accessible technologies within a flexible studio design with no permanent boundaries. I do know the stages I will follow.

In The Differentiated Classroom (1999), Tomlinson suggests introducing Differentiation in my classroom in three steps. I begin by teaching all the students to do a meaningful anchor activity. This is an individual activity that will become part of the year’s routine. It is also a silent activity. I progress to asking some students to do an alternative activity silently and individually. Tomlinson says this creates an atmosphere of individual focus. I move on to short blocks of differentiated tasks involving pairs, then small groups. I’ll have students with experience both from my own classroom and other rooms. They will come into my room expecting to be able to resume the learning styles they had last year. I need to be ready for that. Tomlinson emphasizes the importance of being a metacognitive teacher: unpacking your thinking transparently. They need to know where I want us to go. I need to describe differentiation to them, describe how we are going to use the room and school, and ask them to help build it in our room. When you talk with your students, not at them, you very nearly always have to share power.

Right now I have the bones in place. I need to be ready for my young partners who will flesh it out with me.

The way of differentiated classrooms

July 20th, 2010 1 comment

I’ve been reading C.A. Tomlinson’s 1999 work The Differentiated Classroom and Alan Watts‘ slender volume titled What is Tao? I’ve begun using Watt’s work as a means to meditate on differentiation. Perhaps it is best that I have no real sense of the history or progress of the movement to differentiate. The educational philosophy of differentiating education is not new and Taoism predates antiquity. It might be safe to say the rationale to differentiate learning is ancient as well. I have no illuminating memories of differentiation in my own public education beyond art, industrial arts, and an interlude with special education intended to ameliorate my abysmal spelling. My undergraduate training at the University of Regina in the 1970’s prepared me for differentiated instruction. To varying degrees, it has been present in my classroom. Reading Tomlinson, and participating in contemporary discourse, I realize the limits of what I have been doing, and recognize the need to revitalize what I have been doing. Differentiation has been a presence in education for some time. It leads me to wonder why it has not been able to transcend the contrary educational currents. I think the call for differentiation endures because there is something organically right about it.

Our current educational model is about pressure, engineering and compliance. We establish hierarchical benchmarks tied to schedules approximating average learning rates. We have designed hierarchical institutions to cultivate learning and methodologies to force the pace and direction of learning. Because the result is synthetic, we depend on cooperation from all stakeholders. This has been a very successful approach despite arguments to the contrary. I think it has been successful in part because there has always been room within the loosely controlled system for a measure of authentic learning. As the system becomes more tightly controlled we see diminishing returns

Alan Watts speaks of this when he contrasts Western and Eastern paradigms of our relationship with nature. In the West, I think we are only beginning to attend to the concept that we are not separate from nature. I see a resonance to this in our approach to learning.  Our approaches to learning demonstrate distrust for the individual’s inherent drive to learn independently. Self directed learning is suspect. Self directed learner’s waste time and their finite capacities on the wrong sorts of learning. Assessment for learning is an incredibly successful response to this, but our careful assessments seem designed to make all learners resemble each other.

Watts writes, “If we think of goals in life as destinations, points to which we must arrive, then we cut out the journey that makes a point worth having.” I wonder if our educational strategy standardizes learning to such a degree that there is little room for creativity. We are so anxious to get students to benchmarks that the learning journey loses its meaning.

The strategy for differentiated classrooms begins to position learning in a more natural environment. Like Taoism, it is based on the premise that human nature can be trusted. Watts explains that nature is that which happens of itself and is not fundamentally under our control. By definition, it is that which happens all on its own, like breathing. Learning is acknowledged as natural; yet adults think they have to dominate and shape it. It will be a chaotic force without external control and structure. In the differentiated classroom the teacher trusts and offers autonomy. Tomlinson suggests six hallmarks of the differentiated classroom:

  • Learning begins where the students are, not in the front of a curriculum guide.
  • Learners compete against the self to grow and develop.
  • Learns follow personal growth plans that challenge and provide success.
  • Learning time is flexible.
  • The learner helps shape the environment.
  • Instruction is not standardized or mass produced.

Presented this way, differentiation seems to challenge the whole notion of a curriculum for each cohort, cohorts themselves, and a standardized assessment. I see this in the differentiation premise offered by Tomlinson. Human beings share the same basic needs. Identity is respected. All learners grow.  Learners are individuals who differ in important ways; they are engaged through varied modalities so there is no single ‘right’ way. I agree with this. Differentiation acknowledges our natural propensity to grow in unique ways even if it operates within the paradigm of adult intellectual authority. Differentiation is the root of potentially authentic learning threading its way through the unyielding monolith of our industrial educational system. I wish it could crumble it.

Differentiated instruction needs more currency and support. It runs in opposition to so much and it is not really effective at reaching the current educational destination of standards in a timely manner. I expect differentiation will largely reside in the pragmatic impulses of the moment. I noted a thread of the conversation on Twitter’s #edchat about meeting the needs of the ‘average’ student; more of the resources drained by the gifted and learning challenged. I think in the differentiated classroom these distinctions are irrelevant. That is a hard sell still.

Educational and Curricular Restructuring and the Neo-liberal and Neo-conservative Agendas

May 20th, 2010 No comments

Apple: There are a number of issues that I think are crucial. In my mind, the most important is what I have called in my most recent books (such as Cultural Politics and Education and Educating the “Right” Way) the conservative restoration or “conservative modernization.” That is, the movement more and more to redefine what education is for and how we are to proceed in education both as a practice and as a set of policies. There is a new alliance that is exerting leadership in educational policy and educational reform. In many nations there has been a shift from a social democratic accord or alliance to a coalition centered around 3 or 4 groups that are pushing education and social policy in general in conservative directions. This new alliance or “new hegemonic bloc” is a relatively broad umbrella; it is also tense and filled with contradictory tendencies. But taken together it has been very effective. Let me just mention something about each of the groups who are under the umbrella.

First, there are neo-liberals. These are economic modernizers who want educational policy to be centered around the economy, around performance objectives based on a closer connection between schooling and paid work. I want to stress the word “paid” here, because these people have a very patriarchal vision of the labor force. They tend not to think about who does the unpaid labor in this society – largely women. The economic modernizers are in leadership, by and large, in this new bloc. They see schools as connected to a marketplace, especially the global capitalist market, and the labor needs and processes of such a market. They also often see schools themselves as in need of being transformed and made more competitive by placing them into marketplaces through voucher plans, tax credits, and other similar marketizing strategies. Because neo-liberals are in leadership in this alliance, using the umbrella metaphor, we might say that they are holding the handle of the umbrella.

A second group are neo-conservatives. In most cases it is important to make a distinction between the neo-liberal economic modernizers and neo-conservatives, although in some nations they do overlap. Neo-conservatives often agree with the neo-liberal emphasis on the economy, but their main agenda is cultural “restoration.” Examples in the United States are people such E.D. Hirsch, former Secretary of Education William Bennett, and the late Alan Bloom. These are people who want a return to a totally romanticized version of schooling in which we have a standard curriculum based on that eloquent fiction, the Western tradition. They wish a return to teacher dominated, high status knowledge, largely based on the traditions that have historically been seen as the most legitimate knowledge at elite universities. I mentioned that this is a romantic tradition, since, by and large, there was never a time (at least certainly in the schools in the United States) where everyone learned the same curriculum, where all people spoke the same language, and where everyone agreed either on the Western tradition as the dominant model or on what should be included and excluded in that tradition. Thus, its position is based on a thoroughly romanticized version of the past, and either a romanticized vision of past students and teachers or a vision of them that assumes that without external control they will destroy “real” culture.

I realized this evening that I continue to offer terms like “critical stance” and “critical theory” in my conversation with other educators. I needed to reflect on this. I am struck by its aptness in the conversation I am listening to on Twitter and in the blogsphere. Is this just jargon I acquired at grad school or is it meaningful to the journey I am taking as a learner? I think our interest in democratic schools, differentiated learning and opposition to testing (and in some cases grading itself) does exemplify a critical stance to education. It is not simply practical criticism, but a call for emancipating learners in our public education systems.

Critical theory in education is reflection on ways to reduce entrapment in a system that continues to be based on the domination of learners by maintaining philosophies and practices that sustain dependence. I think we have an emancipatory interest in expanding the scope of our learner’s autonomy. Differentiation and related democratization of the classroom are aimed at reducing the scope of the teacher’s domination. So much of what I read relates to concerns about the way competitive testing perpetuates and rewards the advantages of established elites while deflecting attention from demonstrable economic factors that help explain why economically disadvantaged kids don’t magically improve when their teachers are threatened or the learning outcomes are made explicit. More rigor in teaching and effective formative assessment have a good deal of efficacy in learning. In itself they will not overcome the social factors many students face. Our discussions on integrating technology also focus on empowerment and democratizing learning. Technological integration’s goal should not harnessing technology to enhance teacher power and influence in the classroom or our policy maker’s ability to impose a crippling regime on the system. Technological integration’s goal should be empowering independent learners.

The overwhelming focus of the conversation I follow describes, analyzes, and opens to scrutiny otherwise hidden agendas, power centers, and assumptions that inhibit, repress, and constrain independent learning. I like to think the conversation is growing, perhaps not. Perhaps thanks to Twitter and Blogs I am simply able to hear something that resonates with my own convictions.

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Personality Types and Multiple Intelligences

February 7th, 2010 No comments

Click to view my Personality Profile page
I did this a month ago. This time I managed to flip from a perceiving type to a judgmental person. Perceiving people are flexible, like to keep their options open and think randomly. They like to act spontaneously and are adaptable. Perceivers like to keep things open ended. Judging people like order, organization and think sequentially. They like to have things planned and settled. Judging people seek closure. (My Personality, 2010)

So much depends on a sunny day, a good night’s sleep, and a clean desk at work. You can be more sure about some things than others I am afraid and like a photograph, these tests seem to capture a moment. That is why we look for trends before we generalize. Competent administrators evaluate their subordinates over time and not on a single visit.

This principle of evaluation contributes to my concerns over our increasing reliance on assessment instruments in public education today. We can all compile a list of significant variables and factors that can have an impact on our students results, yet our decisions lean heavily on each discrete test. My grade 3-4 team recently did a reading assessment with our four classrooms. Our plan is to establish differentiated reading groups across all four. I think our reorganization will be based on a number of interdependent factors, but I suspect the results of our recent assessment will weigh heavily on our decision-making. The quantification of the counted beans leave us more comfortable than the intuitive assessment over time.

Getting tangled in my own feet

January 15th, 2010 No comments
Diary of a Wimp on ebook

Diary of a Wimpy Kid on ebook

Despite it all, I still underestimate my own efforts to integrate technology into my classroom. Yesterday during silent reading one of my boys slipped away from his desk and took a laptop to the study carol. In a cohort of enthusiastic computer users his dedication reduces 70% of his peers to the status of Luddites. I think of him as a reluctant reader so I checked his activity after five minutes and discovered him re-immersed in a book on line. Across the room a classmate was reading the same book in print. There was nothing inherently superior about either option. It was just the option he chose. I offered him some fatuous praise and he rolled his eyes (I mean he really did that) and with an exasperated tone pointed out that I had supplied him with the link over the Christmas break. I slunk away feeling embarrassed. I returned to take a picture of him, “Are you going to Blogger that?” he asked. We think alike at times.

I have an appointment this morning and quickly threw a plan together for the ‘guest teacher’ (something is apparently wrong with the word ‘substitute’). That was a relatively simple task, unlike my chess play I do plan my moves well ahead. As I was printing off the plan I remembered I had a Skype call scheduled for this morning. My counterpart has installed Skype on a laptop following my lead. We are now set to send students off for independent conversations now. Only I am not going to be there this morning to orchestrate that. I left a note to the substitute with two student’s names and now I have to leave it in the hands of a nine year old and a ten year old. I think that is what we are working for here. We have to be aware of our student’s activities and guide them toward valid learning outcomes, but we have to stop being technology gate keepers, allow independence and for gosh sake, stop responding to their activities as if they were miraculous. Its just all in a day’s work now.

The Asking of New Questions at

October 28th, 2009 No comments

The Asking of New Questions at

We can’t go back to the days of closed classroom doors and scatter ourselves to the wind on eccentric pedagogical whims.  However, we can leverage our strengths to create and scale-up classrooms with new approaches to teaching and learning that are authentic to students and politically viable to our leaders.  We can radically differentiate what we do to help students and ourselves, and then regroup in teams, schools, and divisions organized on principles more authentic, lasting, and human than standardized-test results.  Let’s get to the future and ask ourselves how we will organize education when everyone meets every standard.  And if we don’t think that’s possible, again, let’s do something different now to make our students the innovators, entreprenuers, and citizens we all want them to be.

I read Chad Sansing’s remarks with interest tonight as I sat catching up with the day’s communication while supper’s rich aroma filled the air.  I’ve used the well-worn phrase industrial education a few times over the last few entries. Some of his remarks on diversity and differentiation caught my attention.

There are within my region public, separate, independent schools and a sprinkling of home schooled students. Within my school division we have a few schools on a four-day instructional week and within the city, an alternate program. These two programs seem constantly in a defensive stance in regard to the rest of the program design. Some years ago this division introduced the Copernican Plan in one of the city high schools. This has fallen by the way. Organizational structures trend toward uniformity. Something loves consistency and organizational interdependence adopts common days (one to five).

Evaluation is personal because we view results as shorthand for those who produced them. Consider how often we place students by their grades and test scores; consider how we talk about students because of their grades and test scores and placements.

What if we placed students by interest? By learning style? By mastery of content?

What if we restructured schools to do the same for adults? What if a school system reorganized to better manage its human capital by creating different types of schools where its teachers and students could find success? Why keep putting square peg teachers into round hole classrooms?

Why is our rhetoric all innovation and our funding all conformity? When do we ask radically new questions of the system to help us do the job it says it wants us to do?

I think we do need breath deep and let differentiated learning take us where it will.

Assessment to differentiate or differentiated learning?

October 24th, 2009 No comments

Zoom in on your home location with Google Earth. There is your home right down to a car you owned three years ago in the driveway. Moose Jaw: your place on the planet, the ephemeral center of your personal geography (50°24’13.21″N, 105°32’23.56″W). Select your destination down to tenths of a second latitude and longitude, let’s say the North-East Cliffs of Molokai (21°10’35.93″N, 156°46’7.98″W).  Execute the operation and watch the virtual flight of your journey. A graceful arch to a virtual stratosphere ascends along the great circle before plunging to earth at the precise point you have established as a destination.  Global positioning is exciting in its exactitude. Each year Google Earth is enhanced with add-ons and the data on any given location grows in complexity. The process of refining continues. We know so much about where we are and where we want to go. The virtual journey between these two points is a blur of exhilarating motion. The real journey is an often frustrating complexity of interdependent factors and problematic conditions.

Yesterday was a PLC Day here: Professional Learning Communities. I had a very productive day. Sans direct contact with young people, it was a confluence of many personal interests. I suppose the young people in my life were present through my reflections on the names crossing my screen and in the assessments that crossed my desk. My time was divided between goal setting with two partnerships in the fourth and fifth grades and processing pre-tests. I was a good boy and did not detour into class preparation. I love a good test and the satisfaction of well correlated data. The spreadsheet results of the math assessment revealed clear patterns and exceptions. The fifth graders are strong math students. What’s this? Eight out of the ten missed the same item. We will definitely be working on factoring this year. The fourth grade results were more heterogeneous than the fifth grade results and that is problematic. I understand each of my twenty-two students a little better now. They are, you might say, becoming differentiated in my mind.

I felt less satisfied when I reached home. Despite our collective sense of renewal and refined purpose in education, I realized I had been engaged in a familiar activity, defining the problem and clarifying the outcomes. Knowing where your students are at and setting a goal seems very purposeful but the larger challenge is the journey between. It always seems to be about assessment for learning. Assessment differentiates our young people and the new assessments do this as much the old ones did. I recall reflecting on my state of preparedness for parent-teacher (woops! student-led) interviews yesterday. I have so much quantified data to share! Numbers and phrases are so comforting. Where is the research and dialogue on differentiated instruction?

Minutes into a lesson, I am sorting the two cohorts into differentiated groups. Whether I am responding to these different groups, or even whether I am effectively bringing these groups together is   my concern. Again, it must be asked, what does differentiated instruction look, sound and feel like in our classrooms? How do we know when this is happening?

Last year I worked with twenty-seven fifth and sixth grade students. It was a community school with greater personnel resources than I have this year. Half of my class were English as second language students. The city’s ESL program was consolidated in our elementary school. Additionally I had two designated students. There were many challenges in the situation but we were able to meet them. The students became accustomed to differentiated groups shifting throughout the day. Two ESL teachers half time, a student support teacher half time, a fulltime paraprofessional and I shared the job of dealing with these flexible groupings. I ran the principal classroom with my groups independently or team-teaching with my SST partner. All three teachers had their classroom space for pull-out groups. By agreement with additional colleagues, individual students could work independently elsewhere. Space was at a premium within the classroom. I had an area for the classroom computers but otherwise had to maintain tight rows of desks. This year I have a smaller, essentially more homogeneous grouping and work virtually alone. It is a more common arrangement. It also challenges differentiated instruction.

Differentiated instruction might involve young people working independently or in small groups. It seeks to address a multiplicity of learning styles so even when students are working toward identical learning outcomes they might both approach and then express their learning in different ways. The classroom teacher needs routines to anticipate and react to a constantly changing dynamic. Young people will be challenged to understand the routines and when necessary switch independently to new tasks without reference to their teacher. To assume differentiated instruction will amount to three or four groupings sustained throughout the school year is optimistic. We are introducing a learning environment of serious complexity into an institution that frankly prises routine and standardized systems. Uniform assessments are given to all students and curricular student learning outcomes are intended for each young person applied by cohort. Public education is industrial by design.

We are striving to remember that young people are pilots of their own craft. Some planes move faster than others, some carry groups heading to similar destinations, while any number carry individual passengers. There are many planes up there now and they are leaving and departing from a busy airport.  They have to wait their turns to depart and arrive. They have to keep to their assigned flight paths or in an instant it is all chaos. Watching them all are the traffic controllers: checking individual planes, making course corrections, ordering them all. I understand that traffic controllers have one of the most stressful jobs in the world. The burnout rate is high.

I am beginning to understand the adaptations we have made to assessment and appreciate the renewed commitment to the old ideas of pretesting and teaching purposefully to a test (rather than testing what you might have taught). The resources for this are coming together. We need to ramp up our efforts on the larger task of designing environments and learning cultures where differentiated learning can happen.