Technology and Differentiation

We are a school that differentiates instruction in every area of the student experience.  With 2 teachers and a TA in every room, we are in small groups 80-90% of our day, every day.  We group students according to true Tomlinsonian criteria- ability, readiness, and interest.  We are in a continuous process of formatively assessing our students and fluidly grouping them accordingly.

With the addition of a middle school in the last three years has come the development, implementation, and growth of our 1:1 program.  This program has allowed us to execute our differentiation practices even more effectively.

Using math as an example, we have begun to use Kahn Academy in a variety of effective ways that complement our classroom approach.  First students can watch a lesson (or a podcast created by our teachers) at home.  Doing so allows the student to control the pace and amount of repetition, as well as when they practice during a lesson.  A student with high ability, readiness, and interest will be able to successfully master a concept quickly, and then move on to teacher-outlined challenges beyond the core requirements of the lesson.  A student with high interest, but low ability of readiness will be able to resolve through the challenge because of the interest, and have access to a deep vault of practice questions in conjunction with the videos/podcasts.  The real differentiation comes into play when our students arrive in class knowing where they are on the continuum of the concept and can immediately self-place themselves in the group that is addressing their particular needs.  The increased ownership and metacognition has been incredibly valuable and empowering for our students.  It has also allowed our teachers more time to focus on various strategies to help the variety of learners, rather than spending requisite time on evaluation and groupings.  (we still do both of these steps, but far less).

Another way that technology has greatly enhanced our differentiation strategies lies in how we offer student choice based on interests, especially in social studies.  Our social studies programming is highly research and project based.   Since the skill sets for success in these areas lie in creativity, research skills, and reading comprehension, we allow our students to develop their own groups according to interest.  While we present the frameworks for the projects, students can execute them in a variety of ways based on their collective creative vision as a group.  Thus, technology is a catalyst in the research process and in the creation process.  Invariably, our students choose a web 2.0 tool to create their project presentation.  The choice afforded them by the framework and the assignment, combined with the technology tools and freedoms of the approach, allows them to pursue their interests, while also developing important academic skills.

The result of the approach in social studies also manifests many of the 21st Century Skills that have been determined to be integral for our students to develop.  Collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication (4 of Bassett’s 5+1) and Johansen’s “Maker Instinct” are all central to our technology based differentiation strategies.

We also differentiate our social emotional educational strategies.  We mostly differentiate based on student readiness for various topics.  While we do so mostly based on age and gender, we often use short video to introduce a social emotional topic, and then allow our students to interpret the meaning/message behind the short video.  In their response before we as teachers tell them the purpose/meaning, they are differentiating for themselves according to how the concepts apply to them- in this respect, the process is more individualization than differentiation, but ultimately, we do ask the students what the concept means to them as a group.  For example, we talked with our 6th graders recently about intangibles and qualifiable skills, such as effort, collaborative spirit, conflict resolution, and leadership.  While some of our students are excelling in math and language arts, some make tremendous contributions to our school because the exemplify hard work, can be a calming presence in a classroom etc.  This week we shared a video about the Allegory of the Animal School to plant the seeds of these important concepts. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8limRtHZPs). Technology allowed us to share an idea without saying a word.  The students’ attention to the video arose from their interest in video, the music, the graphics etc.  It held their attention, let them contemplate meaning, and share their thoughts.

Finally, we also differentiate our leadership program through a steering committee program. http://www.amle.org/BrowsebyTopic/WhatsNew/WNDet.aspx?ArtMID=888&ArticleID=125. This program allows students to develop, implement, and execute important events and initiatives.  We rely heavily on technology.  Our 2nd annual Blood Drive this year was a great example.  After students propose and idea, they develop a committee based on peers who are both interested, and who have an ability in a specific areas.  This year, we focused on digital communication with the community, with Red Cross, and with the scheduling planning.  Thus, when we called for volunteers, we need tech-interested and tech-savvy students to create, collaborate, and communicate with technology tools.

Technology has allowed us to continuously look at how we execute our mission on a daily basis in an increasingly high quality manner.

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