Tuesday, October 30, 2018

When my daughter was a young elementary school student, I believed that it was really important for her to learn to work with different kinds of kids, develop empathy, and ability to get along. I also believed that the teachers will support her individual strengths through that magic "differentiation" process.
In all her years of elementary school my daughter was lucky enough to meet two teachers who did differentiation well. One was her kindergarten teacher who actually had a combo K-1 class. She really managed to use Smarty's academic and character strengths to mitigate her social weaknesses and get her to work with other kids. Smarty had a fantastic kindergarten year, and we eagerly signed up for the first grade with the same teacher. Alas, things did not work as well. Somehow the combo class was put together late in summer, and the kids were not carefully selected for it. New kindergartners were not able to handle pressure of K-1 classroom the same way Smarty and her K cohort could. As a result, the whole classroom shifted to the mellow, "you cannot do it yet" growth mindset incantation and... Smarty was bored and restless. Still, it was good in comparison to the second grade with a different teacher. I volunteered a lot that year, and I could see first hand that the teacher had her hands full with 28 kids where a quarter were at least 4th grade level and up, a quarter was below 1st grade in reading, and the rest were more or less on grade level. In addition, several kids across all three ability groups had serious behavior problems, but none of them had an aide. This teacher took a position that I've seen again and again in later years - she focused on 50% of students that she could get safely through the second grade material. She taught second grade, and she taught it well. In fact, she tried to make it fun and collaborative. That was the year when Smarty started biting her arms in the classroom because, in the absence of intellectual stimulation, her active mind started using sensory stimulation to keep itself occupied.
That second grade year really cured me of the idea that all teachers know how to differentiate and will differentiate willingly for kids above and below the grade level. However, after our conversations with the principal, Smarty was placed with an amazing third grade teacher who used a different approach. She welcomed parent participation in the classroom and used parents to supervise three clusters working independently while she was teaching one other cluster. Obviously, Smarty was in an advanced cluster, and she was happily learning 5th grade math with her close friends who were ready for it. At the same time, the teacher was able to "catch up" kids in the "below grade" cluster while working with them separately. So... differentiation can work, but it requires both a very capable and passionate teacher and additional adults in the classroom to keep an eye on the kids who are not engaged with the teacher directly.
Sadly to say, this was the last year of successful differentiation in the classroom for Smarty. What was most frustrating was that her 4th, 6th, and 7th grade classroom all had enough critical mass to make clustered differentiation work, but the teachers would not do it. Instead, they espoused "collaboration" - something that Smarty came to loathe in 6th grade. Collaboration involved being paired with a random partner on even the simplest tasks, such as filling out a social studies worksheet. Smarty was routinely paired with kids who had all kinds of problems - from crippling anxiety to outright refusal to do any sort of academic work. Being a conscientious kid, she did everything by herself while being both academically bored and socially frustrated. She had low academic stress, but high social pressure to navigate the world of the middle school as a physically tiny 9 year old without the benefit of working with her academic peers except in a parent-led math club.
This brings me back to my point - in-class differentiation cannot work when different students have radically different points of optimal stress on the "pressure curve" of the diagram above. The diagram, by the way, is borrowed from Social Intelligence:The New Science of Human Relationships book by Daniel Goleman. I saw clearly during my two years as a Math Club coach how differently kids respond to academic pressure inherent in competitive mathematics. A minority of kids (including Smarty) actually thrive on challenge. A larger portion of kids quickly shift to anxiety, panic, and withdrawal if they see a problem that appears beyond their skills. Students who love challenge and students who avoid challenge need very different teaching methods. Avoidant students might be quite happy in a collaborative classroom where there is no focus on individual performance. Smarty, on the other hand, is so much happier in her new school, because of its focus on individual mastery.
Smarty's current school does not group children based on their age, but on their ability. All middle schoolers, from grade 6 to grade 8, are clustered together for English, science, and social studies, but one of the "old timers" is already doing high school chemistry instead of middle school science, and Smarty is doing high school marine biology in addition to her middle school life science. English class is way more challenging that anything Smarty had before, and she was blessed with really good English teachers. Smarty was also welcome to pick any high school course as an elective, and she ended up with two - media studies and Spanish. Over the course of the day she works in small groups with kids who are her age or with kids 5 years older, and she is able to hold her own with both groups. She enjoys frequent tests and feedback. This is an environment that I think is ideal for learners looking for more challenge - an ability to shift relatively fluidly between levels and a chance to work in their own zone of optimal performance. I just wish that public schools in our area saw this as a desired state rather than pretending that every student needs the same amount of challenge.

Your Turn

Do you believe that schools differentiate adequately for your children? If so, how does differentiation look like?


Ticia said...

Well, in our super exclusive school of three. I have one child who does not thrive on challenges and deadlines, they freak her out. Two who are vaguely indifferent to anything and can do well with high expectations because they just don't care.
My daughter on the other hand is obsessive about her grades, and is one of those, how can I fix this so I have ALL A's....
If I let them, the boy would have the worst grades ever....