In my time as a teacher, differentiation was the single greatest predictor of classroom outcomes. Simply put, when I made sure that each of my students had a set of diverse instructional options to chose from when learning a new topic, they were more successful.
Students don’t all learn in the same way. If you haven’t spent time in a high school classroom since, well, high school, just think of trying to explain an unfamiliar topic to a friend or relative. When I set out to explain social media to my grandma and her friends, each one needed a different tactic to help the idea really stick. Gladys finally got Twitter when I explained it using a metaphor and some familiar terms: “It’s like writing a diary on a fortune cookie strip and publishing it on the front page of the NY Times.” Explaining why one might actually use Snapchat helped Shirley arrive at her “a-ha” moment. And for Nana herself, she only really understood Instagram when I showed her how to use it on her own phone.
When I taught high school US History, I struggled every day to find new ways to differentiate my own instruction. Over the years, I developed a bevy of approaches. In this post, I’ll reinhabit my mind as a first-year teacher and fill you in on a few of my favorite strategies.
Lectures can be really boring, but luckily my off-the-cuff monologues sound like something from Sorkin’s Bartlett presidency. I throw beautifully crafted sentences around the room with the precision of Peyton Manning. Bounding from desktop to windowsill, I spin tales the likes of which haven’t been seen since Hemingway. You want thematic connections across disparate historical eras? You should see what I was up to during first period.
After one of my school-renowned soliloquies, I’d slide back into my chair and give my students a few questions to ruminate over. Fully prepared to be blown away by my students’ analysis, I was shocked to instead find… silence. How could so many students get nothing from my lecture? Appalled and disappointed, I did what teachers do every single day when a lesson doesn’t work: took 15 seconds to myself during passing time, drank a sip of water, and decided to try something new for the thirty students who were walking in for second period.
Ok, so first period didn’t work quite like I’d planned. Shake it off, you’re Mr. G, you GOT this. You have a fully loaded quiver of teacher tools and these second period kids are getting a new approach. Sure, I’m still going to stick to the lecture, but I’m going to give them another option too. For those who appreciate the subtle brilliance of a gifted orator, this lecturer will lecture. For those who want a different approach, who prefer learning slightly more actively, I’ll offer them a chance to read two textbook entries and compare the different perspectives, rather than listening to me. This could not fail, right? I’m going to give these kids TWO chances to learn what they need to know. Distinct pedagogical approaches — differentiation at its best.
Fifty minutes later, bell sounds. I’m dripping in sweat from another acrobatic lecture (even though only half my students opted for listening to me, I’m still going to give them my all, ya know?). Back to my desk I quickly thumb through their exit tickets (the questions I give them at the end of each class to make sure they’ve retained the day’s lesson). Better. Definitely better, but there are still a handful of students who are missing this…
I’ve got them now! This time, we’ll have THREE options. The learning during this class will be inescapable. Just like in period two, the students can either listen to my show-stopping, life-altering, tectonic plate-shifting lecture or read the secondary sources. But here’s the kicker, now they’ll be given a third choice. Neither of my other instructional techniques whet your appetite, little Michelle? No problem, now you can choose the third door — working through a mini-primary source analysis packet that asks you to answer an essential question using four documents, each of which has its own specially written formative assessment question for scaffolding. BOOM. Try to walk out of this room not having learned… I dare you!
By period three, each student had options and each student was able to seek out the approach that had been most effective for them in the past. I gave my students agency (eventually), and the majority of them rewarded me by “getting it.” Out of these three class periods, my third period students demonstrated, by far, the highest level of mastery. I did not reach every student — there were still a small group of them who likely needed a fourth or perhaps a fifth approach — but on the whole their exit tickets blew me away. Not only did they understand the difference between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, but because they could choose how they learned it, they were able to get to the next level and really analyze the topic. Ladies and gentlemen, differentiation!
Making Differentiation Doable
Differentiating for a full slate of 140 kids is not just difficult. I’d argue that it’s impossible. Or, it was impossible for me. My first year of teaching, I taught three different subjects to eight periods’ worth of students. From contacting parents to grading papers to coaching basketball, there just aren’t enough hours in a day. And that’s okay. Teachers are teachers for a reason. They know their jobs are never going to be as easy as most other professions. But I came to work at Knewton to try to give teachers just a little bit of their free time back.
Knewton’s mission is to make differentiation more feasible for busy teachers. This doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. Far from it. Teachers still have to keep sweating to make lectures as Sorkin-esque as possible, and put in work to ensure that students who automatically tune out when they hear the teacher open his mouth have other activities to tackle. But Knewton can help by automatically differentiating out-of-class work — giving every student the support he or she needs to learn course material and get ahead.