Every Day is Differentiation Day

Kevin Simpson one of our team members and also President of KDSL (Know Do Serve Learn) is in Dubai. He contributed today’s blog:

Everyday is Differentiation Day! This is the theme in Grade 4S at GEMS World Academy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  Read alouds are selected based on student interest.  Independent reading of just right books is chosen by students according to interest.  Flexible guided reading groups are based on readiness.  During writing workshop topics are selected by student interest. Words Their Way groups were created based on spelling diagnostic assessments. Math groups are flexible and organized according to readiness. Units of inquiry (Primary Years Programme) consist of projects focused on interest and how students learn best.  How did the Grade 4 Team arrive at this place of teaching?  The common factor in setting up this milieu of meeting students where they are has been flexibility and diagnostic assessments.

‘Which group am I in?’ is a question some of our learners use to be eager to know. We assure them that the group depends on what they need to know, how they want to demonstrate their learning, or based on their interest.  Teachers also inform students that the groups will change. When learning how to differentiate instruction a core term consistently heard about was flexibility.  In How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, Tomlinson states many rationales for using flexible grouping. For example this strategy is used to ‘encourage teachers to ‘try out’ students in a variety of work settings’ and ‘keeps students from being ‘pegged’ as advanced of struggling’ (102).  So teachers and students have to be prepared to move and change as necessary.  This may be in a group based on readiness, interest, and/or learning profile.  Examples of flexibility in readiness groups this year include: moving 9 students to different reading groups, shifting 3 students into new Words Their Way groups, and transitioning 4 students to new math groups.  Not only do the students move but as a team of teachers we transition too. What is important when it comes to being flexible? 

When our grade level team starts a new unit, the common understanding is that the newly formed groups are flexible and subject to change. We consistently update lists of students in our groups, communicate to each other based on formative assessment data gathered, and discuss our students and groups at weekly collaborative meetings. Another critical piece to flexible groups has been keeping the parents informed.  Information regarding reading levels, Words Their Way grouping, and math groups is sent home early in the year.  Research and applicable web links for teaching in this manner are also made available to parents.  So how are these flexible groups determined? One way is through diagnostic assessments.

What is multiplication?       Solve two ways. 15 x 48

Spell the following words: drive, carries, confident

Games are fun and teach us something.  Think about your favourite game.  What is it and why do you enjoy it.

                What do you know about matter? Write and draw everything you know.

                Above are four examples from diagnostic assessments which were administered this year in Grade 4. These come from computation, Words Their Way, expository writing, and inquiry. The diagnostic assessments the teaching team creates are always diverse, student friendly, and connected to objectives. These assessments are the gateway into the mind and thought process of the student.  They provide students, parents, and teachers with prior knowledge, strengths, misconceptions, and areas to be developed. Other useful diagnostic assessments include discussions and using visuals. Asking students open and closed-ended questions on topics and recording their responses as well as showing pictures related to content are meaningful when finding out what students already know. It is not just about administering a diagnostic assessment, but what you do with the data once it is gathered is crucial.

Acting on data is more important than gathering data.  The team I work on collaborates to examine how our students respond and we have devised an approach for grouping based on readiness. First, we look at our class individually and then we sit together to discuss the entire grade level. Data is organized using spreadsheets in order to look at patterns which exist, strengths, and as a means to create initial flexible groups. These groups are then typed and distributed to the team. Teachers select which group we will work with based on previous groups. We make sure we never work with the same group of students. This allows students to experience a variety of teachers and pedagogical styles. Within readiness groups we can also further differentiate based on interest and learning profile. For example, in addition/subtraction flexible groups students were able to work together with peers and select how they would best show what they learned about the objectives.  Some students created games and others learning posters.   Recently during a unit of inquiry on media students were able to work solo or with a partner, select a task based on interest, and choose how to display their new learning. So differentiation also further occurs within our flexible groups.  The more we use this strategy the more we find students are engaged and able to self manage themselves and their learning.

Meeting students where they are takes educators who are willing to collaborate, be flexible, and really find out what their students know, understand, and are able to do.  For my team this occurs by differentiating instruction, working in flexible groups, and using of diagnostic assessments. With these strategies the focus is always on students and putting their needs, interests, and learning styles first.

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