Friday, October 10, 2014

A Review of "How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms"

 Carol Ann Tomlinson's book, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms, was a brief introduction to differentiation. I read this book in order to improve my asynchronous flipped class. As I started to let students work at their own pace a couple of years ago, I immediately understood other accommodations can and should be made in order to meet the needs of my students. I read the book in the hopes of learning some tools of the differentiation trade.

Overall, the book was useful. Initially, I was disappointed because I already knew several of the techniques mentioned; I was hoping to pick up some more ideas. I'm already using tools like cubing, choice boards and tiered assignments. However, after greater reflection, I'm grateful for reading this book because I now have a better understanding of the guiding principles of differentiation and picked up a few ideas. Some of the ideas that I plan to institute as a result of the book are the following:
  • Challenge leveling: in problem sets and beyond the course learning opportunities.
  • Choices in learning materials: textbooks, videos, online articles, simulations, etc. 
  • Compacting: students who demonstrate prior mastery of a concept can "test" out of the unit.
It was validating to read that some of the strategies I already decided to institute were considered effective ways to differentiate. For example, I am holding all students accountable to be able to apply their learning but exceptional students will be allowed to demonstrate learning at a higher level by creating, evaluating and analyzing learning materials. These higher order products are organized in think-tac-toe boards, choice boards, 2:5:8 boards, etc. Another point of validation was the idea that everything does not have to be graded. It's okay for students to practice applying skills without the specter of a grade looming. It's also helpful to know that my approach of starting small and adding more opportunities for differentiation is appropriate. 

The greatest takeaway from the book was the cognitive framework for differentiation. Rather than gaining a random collection of tools, I have better insight into the paradigm shift, which will equip me with the ability to develop my own tools. For example, there are three major ways to differentiate - by readiness, interest and learning profile. I've tended to focus on readiness and interest. It's easier to differentiate according to ability (readiness) and interest by offering choices at harder and easier degrees of difficulty and allow some freedom in the details and topics of projects. It is much harder to tailor intervention and activities based on individual student learning styles or profiles. That will take a better understanding of learning profiles and the type of lessons that will cater to the various styles in my classes. Looks like I have more research to do. 

The other major insight is there are three major things one can differentiate: content, process and product. Again, I've favored some of these more than others. It's easier to differentiate student products because projects can be broad enough to allow students to decide which modality to use - a report, presentation, video, essay, photo journal, story, etc. In some ways, differentiating content can also be straightforward. I have already offered optional topics for students to learn. Some students will have an opportunity to solve dihybrid Punnett Squares or sex linked problems, while other students will only handle basic genetics problems. In addition, students are allowed to learn the content at their own pace. The most difficult, or time consuming, part of differentiating content is curating a library of varied resources that can make the content accessible to all students. I would love to create an iBook that some students can choose to read, rather than relying on watching the videos I make. 

Another piece is differentiating process. These are the sense making activities that help students process or understand the material. Right now, I don't have many options for students to learn and process the material. Students may complete the sense making activities at their own pace and even have the freedom to pick and choose how much of the activity to complete; however, they do not have freedom to choose WHICH activities to complete. They all pretty much have to do a problem set, lab and online discussion for a typical learning cycle. I'd like to give students a choice, or make the choice, about the nature of the sense making activity. 

The neat thing about differentiating by readiness, interest and learning profile and differentiating content, process and product, is there are a number of possible techniques in a given unit. In one learning cycle, I may differentiate the content by interest but keep the other variables the same. In a different learning cycle, perhaps I may allow students to submit different products according to their learning profile. The combinations are plenty and can be tailored to the particular topic and combination of students in my class.