There have always been buzzwords in education-- perhaps now more than ever. For example, current phrases like personalized learning plans, proficiency-based learning and flexible pathways are hot faculty meeting topics in Vermont. But are they just buzz? Or do these concepts have staying-power?  

If we view these topics through the lens of differentiated instruction -- something that educators and researchers agree improves student outcomes -- then it’s more than likely these buzzwords could be with us for awhile.

Personalized learning plans, proficiency-based learning and flexible pathways all stem from the notion that students are unique and learn in ways that are particular to them. Differentiating learning means educators build on the unique experiences and understandings of each student, and continuously tailor learning opportunities for every student.  

When educators focus on differentiated instruction, they can feel passionate, excited and overwhelmed. An example is Laurel, a middle grades reading teacher at Kurn Hattin Homes, a non-profit located in Westminster, Vermont, which serves as a charitable home and school for children affected by tragedy, social or economic hardship or family disruption.  She shares, “I believe in differentiated instruction and its benefits to my students. I know I can do it. It takes planning and implementation time. Students have to get used to it. But, it’s worth it in the long run.”

Common questions educators may ask include, “How can I adapt materials I use for the whole class to use with smaller groups without overwhelming myself with planning?” and “How do I effectively implement differentiation in the classroom?”

Teaching to learner differences involves new ways of thinking about five essential elements:

  • Pre-assessment: Responding to learner differences requires teachers to be informed as much as possible by detailed knowledge about students' specific strengths, needs, and areas for growth across multiple dimensions including students’ academic literacies, students’ motivations and orientations to learning, differences in how students learn, and personal characteristics.

  • Assessment: Providing students with multiple ways to demonstrate knowledge and skills providing both teachers and students with more accurate understanding of students' knowledge and skills.

  • Content: Making content accessible by modifying and clarifying content in response to a student's readiness level, interests, or learning profile (see types of pre-assessment).

  • Instruction (including both engagement & monitoring learning during instruction): Providing students with multiple ways to access content improves learning and monitoring students’ progress to provide information to the teacher about how they might adjust instruction and to provide high quality feedback to the student.

  • Environments: A classroom structured to respond to student differences should support, and is supported by, an evolving community of learners that is supportive, strengths based, and growth oriented.

Sometimes educators have the impression that differentiating instruction means simply allowing students to show what they know through different pathways. But as the information above illustrates, differentiating is more than just giving kids the opportunity to demonstrate understanding in different ways.

If differentiated instruction is an approach broadly supported in the research literature, why is it still not widely and effectively used? There is evidence to suggest that most teachers feel ill prepared to teach students with diverse learning needs.

To put it simply: Differentiation for the whole class and individuals is hard.

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Commentary by Becky Wipfler

Becky Wipfler is UVEI’s Elementary Education Coordinator.  Other commentaries by Becky, can be found at http://uvei.edu/blog/322-school-district-partnerships-reinvigorate-teaching-practices,  http://uvei.edu/blog/318-project-based-learning-why-it-matters and http://uvei.edu/blog/287-my-evolution-as-a-literacy-coach

You can follow her on Twitter @UVEIwipfler

 

Kevin Petrone was hired as a teacher at Thetford Elementary School (TES) in 2010 after working as a second grade teacher at Samuel Morey for seven years. As a first grade teacher at Thetford,  he quickly earned the reputation as patient, but firm. I can attest to his patience:  it took working almost the entire year with my daughter to keep her shoes on during circle time on the rug-- and it paid off! (Although she still prefers to be barefoot, her shoes are usually on her feet the whole school day now.)

In 2013, Kevin was hired as TES's interim principal and now holds the principal position. He just started his fourth year and draws on his eleven years as a classroom teacher in his approach to leadership. I talked with Kevin recently about his transition to administration -- the opportunities, challenges and areas of focus.

What prompted your transition from classroom to principal's office?

I had always thought about moving to administration. What happened at TES is that an opportunity presented itself. I jumped sooner than I would have, but Keith Thompson moved [out of the position as TES principal] to fill an assistant superintendent roll, and I turned to UVEI to get principal certification.

I also wanted to extend my impact beyond classroom. I was a competent teacher. Colleagueship, sharing ideas and bringing things into the school is hard to do at classroom level. The administrative role makes it easier to influence school culture and climate. I have more of an impact in that role.

What do you find most rewarding about the principalship? What do you miss?

I’m in my fourth year, and it’s extremely different from the dream! I sometimes compare being a principal to having a baby: you don’t really know what it’s like even though people tell you what to expect. So much goes on behind the scenes. As a classroom teacher, you don’t really know. You make judgements about your administrators. Now I have more respect for the position.

What have you found surprising about this job?

Facilities and maintenance. Some days the custodian isn’t in, and I’m fixing toilets, getting phone calls in the middle of night that heat and water are out. I also spend a lot of time on special education law. I’ve learned so much about this.

What are the biggest joys of the job? The challenges?

Joys? Working with the larger school community. community responses, community feedback and conversations with people who are really satisfied. I really enjoy having those conversations with people and passing that feedback on to those responsible. I have way more connections -- parents, school boards, local communities.

Challenges? So many on a daily basis. I have high expectations for myself in this role -- the matter of prioritizing is a challenge. On any given day your plan can go out the window. Those things that come up are pressing, like sitting down with a child who needs you. It’s easy to be removed from kids in this role. So it’s important to be present. I don’t have a daily influence on kids, but it’s there. But I’m more connected with them throughout their life here. As an elementary teacher, once kids move out of your classroom, you barely see them. Now I have them for seven years. I have a different perspective.

This year there’s a focus on Project Based Learning (PBL) at TES. Why PBL? What were you seeing in the school that led you to choose this approach?

It’s funny, as the supervisory union was forming this initiative around PBL, at TES, our school leadership team and groups of teachers were already talking about student engagement. We created value statements a few years ago, and PBL was on our list.

What are some examples of successful PBL at TES?

It’s still our first year and it’s in progress. The first grade farm stand is a great example. It was done last year and this year it involved more than one classroom -- harvesting the garden and making products, selling after school, donating to charity. We have smaller PBL projects, too -- the sixth grade mapped the playground. They calculated the square footage so we can get an idea about how much fertilizer we need year-to-year. It’s more authentic, it removes the text book. The kids see value in what they’re doing.

What school-community connections do you think may be enhanced?

Our PTO is in process of developing a directory of business and community members with expertise who would be willing to come to school and share their expertise; what subject teachers are working on and an expert they can go to find resources. This is a work in progress. Our goal is to have a bank of people who can help kids with the project they’re working on.

The principal's job is challenging, but rewarding. It’s a good feeling.

Interview conducted by Kristen Downey

Kevin Petrone is the principal at Thetford Elementary School.  He graduated from UVEI’s Principal Intern Program in 2014.

 

It’s early in the morning and not many people have managed to get a second cup of much-needed coffee. But that’s not why people’s brains are a little fuzzy. This is the third of the four-part series, Perspectives on Teaching, Learning, and the Brain and Dr. Christian Jernstedt, Professor Emeritus of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, has just asked these aspiring teachers to recall a meaningful portion of the content of his last session. Everyone is clearly struggling. Dr. Jernstedt is looking at one young man in the back row and waiting patiently for an answer.

“Can I use a lifeline?” Ethan, an aspiring English teacher, asks playfully, and many in the room chuckle.

Dr. Jernstedt specializes in human learning. And he knows exactly why everyone is struggling and furiously flipping through notebooks, searching for their notes from the last class.

“It’s disappointing,” he said later, that people can’t remember a very crucial point from the last session. But Dr. Jernstedt knows a teachable moment when one presents itself. He tells the room that the disappointment he feels is a reality that teachers need to grapple with. Teachers can deliver what they think is a good lesson, but students will not necessarily learn or remember.

The reason we forget, he tells us, is not that the idea or answer has gone from our minds. Interference is why we forget. New information interferes with previously stored information. Our brains are very smart, and crammed with an enormous amount of information. Forgetting happens when we can’t retrieve a memory. And trying to retrieve memories is not analogous to searching in a file cabinet for the information. “It's more like an archeological dig,” says Jernstedt.

Have you ever tried to remember something, been frustrated at the inability to recall, and then the memory comes to you at another time, such as when you’re in the shower? That’s the amazing power of the brain -- to continue to work in the background to retrieve a memory, even when you think you’re not working on the problem.

So what does this all mean for teachers? Well, the answer is complicated. Learning often depends on the ability of a student's brain to retrieve information. Research, Dr. Jernstedt says, tells us that when subjects take a nap immediately after learning new information, they can recall more than those who remain awake. Since most of our students won’t be napping after our lessons, we’ll have to try a different approach.

There are many things teachers can do to minimize interference. Teachers can use structure, elaboration and imagery to maximize meaningfulness. Teachers can chunk information into the small, meaningful bits. And teachers can help students rehearse and remember.

But at the moment, the fuzzy brains in the room are still working on the problem at hand: What was the important information Dr. Jernstedt said at the last session that we should have remembered?

Perhaps we all need to sleep in it. Or get that second cup of coffee.

Commentary by Kristen Downey

Kristen Downey is UVEI’s Associate Director for Teacher Education and a member of the program faculty. Kristen’s commentary on participation strategies can be found here. You can follow her on Twitter @UVEIDowney