In middle years classes you are likely to find a wide range of ability and interests, which can be difficult to manage using traditional direct instruction strategies. Digital tools allow for much more personalised learning in classrooms. “Differentiation Using 21st Century Tools” by Kery Obradovich, a maths and science teacher, includes a range of strategies for differentiation. Teaching Today has an interesting article about Differentiating Science Instruction and the Dare to Differentiate wiki is the ultimate resource for differentiated teaching strategies. The Irish Special Education Support Service has an excellent page for "Science Differentiation in Action" to support students with special needs. My ideas for differentiation are as follows:
1. Know your students well. An effective teacher should be able to list a dozen points about each individual in their class – their abilities, interests and goals. I like to use a “letter to my teacher” at the beginning of the year, to get to know my students better. I also use Google Docs to create a survey that students can access and collect details about their favourite sports, hobbies, foods, TV programs, as well as their email addresses. This can be used later in Maths for graphing and data activities. You could also use one of the many multiple intelligences surveys available to get to know how your students learn best. Tom Barrett has produced an excellent series of crowd-sourced slideshows, including “Interesting Ways to Get to Know your New Class”, which, at the time of writing, had 24 strategies from educators around the world. I often find that I get to know my students best during extra-curricula activities – camps, excursions and sporting events – so I try to be involved in as many of those opportunities as I can be.
2. Take the time at the beginning of a unit of work to find out what students already know about a topic. I often have a class discussion, in which I draw a mindmap (or display a concept map) which gives an idea of the scope of the unit. As we mention examples and ideas, these are added to the concept map. You could also ask students to create a Web Doc (mash up of text, images, drawings etc) about what they know about a topic. You might want to emphasize the literacy in a topic, and ask students to create a Wordle or Tagxedo word cloud, or a crossword or word search using key words from the topic. Educaplay is a site to create word puzzles, quizzes, maps and other educational games from keywords.
3. Give students a choice (especially in the middle years) of tools to use or ways of presenting their work. Encourage students to use a variety, not just the easiest or most favorite each time. Open-ended tasks, that allow students to use their creativity and draw in their own experiences and interests are usually the most successful. For example, the 60second science video competition, in which students were asked to work in a group to produce a one minute movie that demonstrated their understanding of how forces act on an object. Some students used bicycles, skateboards, model boats, paper planes, insects on water, balls and trampolines. You could use Glogster for e-posters, which Kery Obradovich wrote about at “Using Glogster for Differentiation”, create digital stories (slideshows, photostories, videos or ebooks) or any of the online publishing tools (blogs, wikis, podcasts) to share student work. My “Digital Toolbox for 21st Century Learners” has lots of examples of how different web2.0 tools can be used for differentiation.
4. Agree on some criteria that match your learning intentions and make the goals specific. You may like to show some examples of student work (or your own if you don’t have student examples) and discuss what is good, what is interesting and what might be improved. Develop a rubric with students so they know what is expected. Rubistar is a great site for creating rubrics. The Differentiator , by Byrdseed, helps to write effective learning intentions and success criteria using Bloom’s taxonomy.
5. Self assessment and goal setting is important. I use surveys and templates to scaffold this. For example, in Maths, students identify which type of problems they are having difficulty with, set a ‘SMART’ goal to improve that area of understanding and then actively address that learning need by finding out more and practicing those questions in a variety of ways. (I’d like to move to the stage where they then have to teach the concept to other students.) Using Google Forms, you can create a survey to embed on a blog or wiki to encourage your students to reflect on their goals and progress.
6. Some links to more information and ideas about Differentiation:
“Tools for Differentiation” is another wiki with lots of good information, strategies and, well, tools for differentiation.
“Using Technology to Differentiate Instruction” also includes a list of web2.0 tools for different learning styles.
“Differentiating the Curriculum”from the NSW Department of Education has more general information about differentiation.
List of links about Differentiated Instruction from Maryn Abadenhorst has an extensive list of links if you need more reading material!