Monday, February 16, 2009

Differentiated Instruction

We often think of things happening to us. We get stuck in traffic. A sudden wind gust destroys our perfectly-coifed hair. The copier dies just before we are to print off important documents. These things (each a frustration) happen for reasons seemingly beyond our control. Each incident slows us down, disrupts our routine or simply tilts the balance of things in our lives so that it feels like the odds are stacked against us. We may end up rolling our eyes, sighing loudly or even worse: cursing.

Perhaps this is the ways that students who struggle in school see classrooms that aren't differentiated. As the teacher announces the lesson for the day, the students instantly sees the same pattern emerge -- a pattern that doesn't work for him or her, and never has. The teacher introduces the topic of the day, writes notes on the board, gives the class a culminating assignment, and then the bell rings. Class is dismissed. The troubled student gets lost in the routine. He or she simply shuts down. After all, this is happening to him or her. The teacher's approach to the material is seemingly beyond the student's control. In the end, the student doesn't get ahead. He or she just falls further behind. The same old, same old doesn't work for this student, and it never has.

A differentiated classroom gives students the chance to experience learning in a new way. Varying lessons so as to cater to individuals in class gives students a chance to have control over their own education. The lesson doesn't simply happen to the student. The student chooses the best course of action for his or her learning. Better yet, differentiated instruction allows the teacher the opportunity to design a lesson for a student's strengths or weaknesses.

When I first began using differentiated instruction in the dance classroom, I was skeptical of its applicability to my subject matter. How would I be able to vary the outcome of dance phrases or choreographic studies? How would I be able to differentiate the information my students needed while also honoring the long pedagogical tradition of dance?

I began with baby steps. I tried differentiating the movement material in a dance technique class.

First, I taught an extended movement phrase to students in my Intermediate/Advanced Modern Dance class. All students learned the phrase together. Then, I selected certain students who I believed needed an extra challenge to perform the extended movement phrase at a quicker tempo. Students who felt that they weren't ready to perform the more advanced version of the phrase continued to perform the movement in smaller groups at the original tempo -- until they were ready to move on to the faster version.  Finally, I encouraged two students (who had already performed the movement phrase at the faster pace) to perform the combination on the other side; they were asked to transpose the phrase with no assistance from me and to perform it. By the end of the exercise, I had a small group of students performing the original movement phrase as it was initially taught, I had a medium-sized group of students performing the phrase at a slightly faster tempo and I had my two most advanced students performing the phrase at the faster tempo on the other side. This example of differentiated instruction did require me to spend extra time in class explaining my expectations, but it worked. The students felt that they were learning at a pace that was appropriate for their ability, and more importantly, they felt in control of their learning. 

I have since used differentiated instruction many times in my classroom. I've created challenge stations. I've organized small groups of students based on ability, not "like-ability." I've even varied the product with which students demonstrate their understanding of a specific subject based on experience and skill. I like using differentiated instruction. I like giving students choices. I like giving them a sense of control over their own education, and I know they like it too. How? Quite simply, I see students engaged in class and demonstrating a more sophisticated understanding of the material. They are empowered.

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