Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Differentiating in a Standards-Based Class

Perhaps the single greatest instructional benefit of standards-based learning is how effectively it sets us up to differentiate by readiness. When tracking achievement based on tasks (as we did in the traditional teaching model), it’s easy to gloss over differences and complicate our assessment and communication; we can add or subtract points for everything from lateness to neatness to skill demonstration to content knowledge. When planning, instructing, and assessing using learning targets and scales, however, it’s nearly impossible to ignore student differences. In a standards-based classroom we track specific skills, not general tasks, and so we can no longer confuse a student’s neatness with her ability to develop a thesis statement. Once we have isolated this skill achievement, we cannot ignore our role (and responsibility) in each student’s progress, and so we must differentiate.


There are many ways to differentiate and many reasons to do so. The focus of this blog is on differentiating by readiness based on formative assessment data. Differentiating by readiness is not tracking. One main difference is the flexibility that comes from determining needs based on precise learning targets; students in the top group for one skill will not be in that same group for another skill, and students who struggle with a particular skill one week will find themselves in a different group (and with different peers) when focusing on a new skill the following week. Another main difference between readiness grouping and tracking is the timing; tracking is long-term, while grouping is often no more than 30 minutes in a class. Tracking assumes a broad skill strength or deficit (often incorrectly or unfairly), and readiness grouping is based on specific evidence of a precise skill, and is therefore much more likely to change and vary in time. We should not group students based on broad categories of skill (i.e. Reading, Writing, Speaking), but rather on specific skills that we have assessed (i.e. inference in reading, purpose in writing, or projection in speaking).

After years of differentiating  in our humanities class (sometimes successfully, and sometimes not so well), we developed a system that helped make the planning and organization much more effective. Since becoming coaches and working with classrooms at all levels and in all disciplines, we have seen this system help teachers new to and experienced with differentiation become more intentional and efficient in their attempts to help all students progress.



The Readiness-Differentiation Planning Model



Target and Scale: Start with a target you are currently working with in class. You will need a scale for the target, preferably a transferable skill scale. As we discovered years ago, trying to differentiate content targets is nearly impossible without just throwing more work at some students and less at others. This usually does little to improve skills and may lead to frustration from all involved. But if you have a scale that defines multiple levels of skill progression (increasing in complexity), designing multiple tasks becomes much more manageable. Our example is a speaking scale with a specific focus on voice and presence. Our summative was a persuasive speech, so we needed to work on multiple elements of speaking; we isolated this skill as it seemed to have the most variation.



Formatively Assess and Sort: Carefully and intentionally design a formative assessment that will provide data of student achievement at all levels of the scale. For the sample below, we had already introduced the scale to the class and practiced at all levels as a group. Once we had played with the skill for a few classes, we designed a formative (a practice speech)  asking them to demonstrate what they could do. Sort your student formatives into 4 piles, each corresponding with a level on the scale. This is a great time to revise the language of your scale if necessary, as often seeing student work can help define the levels of the scale more accurately and clearly. If you do revise the language, remember to let students know you did! Once you have your student work sorted, enter the student names (names below have been changed!) in the second row of the template.




Determining Needs: Now that you have work sorted, take a look at each pile or evidence of work (in the case of the speaking scale, we had filled out rubrics with notes on achievement) and look for common misconceptions, patterns, missing ideas, and clear areas of need. Based on your analysis, what does each group need to move “plus one”? Think about the difference between instructional needs and practice needs. Consider which groups would benefit from individual work, and which need group instruction or work. This is where you plan for the ideal, meaning you write what each group needs regardless of logistical difficulties.





Organize and Manage: Finally, it’s time to determine the best way to organize the differentiated lesson. You may need to compromise a bit based on realities of your experience, your particular students, your environment, or your time constraints. But try to get as close to the ideal as possible, as that is what you (the professional) has determined will provide the greatest learning. You may decide to combine a few groups, to split the lesson into multiple days, or to ask a colleague to help for the lesson. Note that we chose to run 3 groups only for this lesson, as the needs of the two middle groups were similar (and we were worried about the management of 4 groups in a small space!). Here is a link to the 3 task sheets that we used to keep students focused and organized.


Here are some questions to consider when planning:
    1. How many groups do you think you can manage? Is there another person who can help you?
    2. How can you minimize transitions?
    3. How will you explain the differentiation to the class? (if this is not the culture of the class)
    4. What kind of task sheets will you need to ensure clarity?
    5. Which groups need you first, last?
    6. Within groups, do you want them working together or individually?
    7. How will you physically organize the space to meet the above needs?
    8. Do you have specific students you need to consider when grouping?



Here is a link to a google doc of the full template filled out (better quality than images above!).

Differentiating by readiness is the most efficient and effective way to ensure student progression on a particular skill. When we meet students where they are and provide appropriate challenge to get them to the next, clear target, they are much more likely to get there. Experiencing success is vital to learning, and when students see that the work they did in differentiated groups led to immediate growth, they will be much more willing to persevere when struggling. The outcome for the most advanced students is equally as rewarding; we all want to be challenged, and when our achievement is recognized and honored by added complexity rather than additional work, we feel respected as learners. Our role as teachers is to challenge each one of our students, and differentiating by readiness not only allows us to do this, but demands that we do.

There are many ways to differentiate by readiness, but this model has been successful for us and for the teachers and learners we work with. Here is a blank template. Feel free to make a copy and turn it into something that works for you and your students.