Differentiation for Real Life (Part 1)

Student-centered. Differentiated. Tailored instruction. Individualized learning plans.  No matter what you call it, we’re talking about helping our students take different avenues to the same learning objective. Each of these buzzwords and phrases suggests that we teach in such a way that we are reaching – and having an important impact on – the individual student. This is a very important idea and I’m glad we are working on figuring it out. We are all individuals after all, and we all have our own learning styles, dreams, desires, talents, likes, dislikes, etc. And so, of course, do our kids.

If you are reading this then you may know some of the challenges associated with differentiation.  How does one teacher differentiate instruction on a rotating syllabus of topics each day for 25 kids who are as different as snowflakes over the course of and entire day of 45 minutes teaching periods and then repeat, repeat, repeat. Let’s just say a teacher is responsible for differentiating instruction for 150 students when the average amount of time available per student is plus or minus one minute depending on instruction time during each 45 minute class. The goal is to ensure that each individual student is processing, understanding and ultimately applying the new information, Basically, what we need to do seems close to impossible and yet we still have to make it happen. [Side note: This is why teachers are miracle workers.]

I don’t have a magical answer for the seemingly impossible question of how do we differentiate and meet all students’ needs every day beyond infusing a bunch more time, money and new thinking into building the improved education system of the future.  But what I do know for sure – and what I have witnessed and proven to work many times over – is that there is a specific kind of differentiation that works.  It’s the same kind of differentiation that is developed over time the same way humans develop friendships: infusing time spent with other humans who, for whatever reason, care about each other. Add this to our students’ academic experience and then repeat, repeat, repeat. This kind of differentiation can be applied in a number of different ways in the classroom, especially when exposing kids to opportunities to learn about and experience the real world.
If we look at how friendships are formed, we see a few key ingredients:
  1. Mutual areas of interest
  2. Time spent together
  3. One on one conversation
  4. Commitment and genuine desire to continue building the relationship
  5. Shared intentional focus on anything – a problem, a question, a mutual area of interest, a joke, a social justice movement – anything.  [Hey, you like that? Me too! Let’s share our intentional focus on this area of interest – ahem, I mean, let’s talk more, get to know each other and bond.]
  6. Trust developed over time from a proven mutual commitment to one another
If the above ingredients are how we develop our individual-centered experiences and differentiated relationships in life, then I suggest that we need the same ingredients in the classroom and in our students’ experiences of learning concepts in real life. The inherent and most basic ingredient in the list above is people.  But when the people our students are learning from have only one minute per day (on average) for each of them, how do they – or we -go deeper into the differentiation?
The clear answer to me is more people in the classroom.  Where do we get more people? From the community. The people are there, and they want to get engaged.  If we can help our teachers to develop new ways of accommodating more volunteers, mentors, speakers, coaches and friends in the classroom on a regular basis, then our students stand to gain quite a bit, not the least of which is new relationships and the experience of building those relationships with the best kind of people: those who are interested in their success.

I have a lot to say about how we can do this at the high school level as part of curriculum and instruction around life, career and business world skill building. Please stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog to learn more about why, how and where we must make this a matter of course for our schools.