lit lover book

reflections of an ever-evolving educator

Sunday, March 06, 2005

differentiate this

During our in-service on Friday, the presenter brought up differentiation and the general consensus that it is necessary/impossible in our classrooms. She suggested that instead of focusing on differentiating curriculum, we differentiate assessment instead. She gave the example of a student she had once taught, one with an 80 IQ, who had great difficulty reading and writing. However, he had an intuitive understanding of the literature, a more insightful grasp than any of her other students. But he couldn't pass her tests, couldn't write to grade level standards, so she failed him. She talked about how much she regrets that, how she could have counted his insightful contributions to class discussions as assessments, given him other alternate assessments that would have provided him an opportunity to pass her course.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I understand that people learn different ways, thus the need for differentiation. Problem is, given the time constraints and our class sizes, meaningful differentiation of instruction isn't always possible. Sometimes, we do it hit or miss--appealing to one set of learners one day, another set the next. Too often that's the best we can do.

But differentiating assessment speaks to something else entirely. It sounds good initially, but then we have to ask ourselves, doesn't that change the game altogether, and perhaps unfairly, for a lot of students? If, for example, the point of a particular course is to train students to read critically and write at a particular level, but we choose to assess some of them based on their ability to discuss verbally and pass them based on that ability, even though they haven't demonstrated the skills the course was supposed to teach--what the hell? And just how long do you think a school administration would support a teacher doing that? I can tell you--until the first parental complaint, at which point that teacher would be hung out to dry.

I agree with Bloom that our kids are being treated as if they are "cans of beans" --part of this is happening due to the continuing effort by the government to run education in the same way profitable business is run. In that scenario, students become product, their achievement (or lack of it) a measure of our productivity, and thus we set the same expectations for every kid, which is unreasonable and impractical. My question is what should be the alternative? I don't like the current model, I think it is harmful to many students who don't meet the government-established standards, but what should we be doing instead? Any ideas?


At 1:35 PM, Blogger Glory said...

I have mixed feelings about this, too. Most of my students are LD, and I spend much of my day working with their regular ed. teachers on "accommodating" them. But I do it apologetically, because of, well, all the things you articulated in this post. No wonder they dread seeing me coming.

Watch tomorrow's post for the "fog" analogy. I didn't want to mess with my punch line, but the metaphor was begging to be made.

Thanks for reading.

At 12:56 AM, Anonymous fred the fish said...

Last year, one of the examples given of differentiated learning was a teacher who scaled a major historical and architectural project into three levels for his class, broke the groups in autonomous, semi-autonomous, and regulated groups. I nearly wept when I read it. Okay, I cursed. How the hell was I going to figure out a plan like that? "It takes practice," was the answer.
It is frustrating to fail kids who do not pass to standards, but more and more, I find myself creating projects with attainable C goals, and adding challenges to the B and A layers. Maybe this is differentiated for dummies (the dummy being me) and doesn't really count, but I do find that my students who want the challenge rise to it, and the students who will struggle, hit the C and sometimes try for the B.
This discussion begs the questions: what DO you do in hetereogeneous classes (and how do you spell it), and how do you really and truly assess 33+ kids on their verbal ability?

At 12:35 PM, Blogger Teacher Lady said...

Hi, I just came across your blog and noticed a comment you left on first-year teacher's blog about the humor unit you do. What kind of stuff do you do specifically? I would love to try a unit like that. I'm in my first year in a very, well, URBAN high school, and I think the kids would enjoy it.

At 11:49 AM, Blogger Lectrice said...

The key detail of differentiated assessment is: what will you use the assessment for? Most summative assessment *cannot* be fairly differentiated without either limiting a child's chances, or showing unfairness to other children. In the UK our formal qualification systems go for the former - you are entered for one tier of exam paper, which has a top grade achievable, regardless of your performance.
Formative assessment is more touchy feely, and should be differentiated, i believe.

We really should be combining the two, formative and summative, differentiated and undifferentiated, as educators. But we can't do away with summative, benchmarked, fair and unaided assessments - when we stray too far from the cruel realities of the world these children will one day move into, we do them a disservice.

At 1:42 PM, Anonymous Bud Hunt said...

Gee whiz. Good questions. Hurry up and discover some answers for us.
I'm fortunate -- as a teacher in an alternative program, I have a smaller teaching load than most teachers -- and that allows me some time to discuss with a colleague or two how I think I should alter my curriculum to meet the needs of different students.
But it's still tricky -- when I change the assessment, as you point out, I have to make sure that the student leaves with roughly the same abilities as the other students in the class.
Sadly, I know that I probably don't succeed all the time. Like I said, hurry up and solve this one!


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