Coaching is about teaching, and the more effectively you can teach, the more complexity players can handle. As technology has gotten better so has the teaching, which has had a direct effect on the quality and complexity of the strategy we see on the field. Chris B. Brown
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Jewish day schools want every child to succeed in their learning and social-emotional development. How can schools accomplish those lofty goals while teaching many students in the same classroom? This issue explores that conundrum and showcases various ways that learning can be differentiated to meet the needs, capacities, and interests of different students. Articles address differentiation within the classroom, and supporting teachers to learn, transition to, and apply methods of differentiation. Authors discuss the "how-to" as well as the larger goals and vision.
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Following the Torah maxim to teach a student ke-darko, according to the way he or she learns best, many Jewish day schools today feature programs for differentiated learning and implement best practices in progressive education. No matter how much time a teacher spends differentiating lessons, however, an outlier student with an assortment of unusual talents offset by daydreaming or intense emotionality may stubbornly elude understanding even from the most caring teacher or administrator.
Deeply ingrained attitudes and mindsets regarding fairness and equality may influence a teacher’s decision to embrace or reject differentiated practices. Questions relating to student equality, relative distribution of support among students, and reasonable expectations of teachers may weigh on educators when considering implementation of differentiation. A powerful predictor of whether, how, how often and how successfully a teacher will differentiate his or her instruction is the teacher’s mindset about fairness and justice within differentiation.
Before launching a private consulting practice, I served for five years as director of development at a sizable Orthodox school in a major metropolis. On my first visit as a consultant to a small school, I found myself mentally noting all of the “mistakes” my client, the head of school, was making. Board members were involved in grant writing and reporting. The school could not afford a development director, so her lay leadership coordinated the fundraising program. She was allowing her development committee to spend too much time on events.
In all classrooms, teachers encounter diverse students with individual strengths and challenges. Typically, teachers celebrate student successes and feel frustration with students who find learning to be challenging or exhibit disruptive behaviors. This reaction is, in part, a relic of the behaviorist approach to education of the 20th century and further supported by an education system that praises teachers who minimize behavioral disruptions and produce high test scores in their classrooms (Mary Brownell et al., “Special Education Teacher Quality and Preparation”).
Differentiation in the classroom, artfully executed, undoubtedly holds the power to enhance student growth and development. In part, it’s a matter of identifying individual student strengths and potentials and capitalizing on them. Similarly, on a broader scale, identifying and capitalizing on the strengths and potential of our schools is a means of differentiating them from the competition, and thereby enhancing their growth and development.
It is hard to disagree with the goals of differentiated instruction. Carol Ann Tomlinson, differentiation’s most prominent theoretician and proponent, describes differentiation as student-centered learning, with teachers systematically changing the educational content, process or product to adapt to each student’s profile, interests and readiness. Given that every student has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses, talents, interests, cultural upbringing and academic history, for any given lesson students will need a change in level or style to accommodate the differences.
Special educators have delivered differentiated instruction for decades. After all, the rationale for enrolling students in special education is that in this setting, they will receive more individualized and specialized attention than would be available in regular education. Special education classes are almost always smaller than regular education classes; they have as few as six students with one teacher and one or more paraprofessionals. The assumption is that the special education teacher can focus on the precise learning needs of each student.
Train a child according to his way; even when he grows old, he will not turn away from it.
This simple advice from Proverbs fosters a style of teaching that helps students reach their fullest potential as learners, and it speaks to the crucial development of a lifelong love of learning. It states a basic and profound truth: Each of us is unique; each of us learns “according to his [or her] way.” Who would have thought that one of the buzzwords in education, differentiated instruction, has been a part of the ancient canon of Jewish wisdom all along?
The dynamic flexibility of the Montessori classroom allows endless modifications to be made to meet the needs of students with all types of complex learning profiles, but all of these opportunities translate into learning successes only when entrusted to teachers who are fully engaged with their students. The freedom of movement and choice of activities throughout the day allow teachers ample time to circulate in the classroom and interact with each child, to share quiet moments, to learn about their sense of humor, to understand how their mind works.
The seminal ingredient of a successfully differentiated classroom is mindfulness. In cultivating mindfulness, specifically in the form of kindness, we create a true community of learners in a meaningful, not superficial, way. It is critical that all children feel competent in a differentiated classroom, and it is the teacher’s job to make sure that happens as often as possible. This starts with teachers being self-compassionate, teaching children that kindness matters and fostering the understanding that some children are not more equal than others.
In January, the third grader’s struggles with Chumash became almost unmanageable. He alternated between resting his head on his closed book, doodling in it and making jokes that disrupted his class at Beit Rabban Day School in New York City. When a teacher worked with him one-on-one and asked him to read a pasuk aloud, he responded, “I can’t. I hate Chumash.” Indeed, when he eventually opened his Chumash and started to read, he mispronounced many words.
Most teachers have had some experience with and training about differentiated instruction in the course of their careers. Recent developments in learning software design on the one hand and brain science on the other have shifted the conversation about meeting students’ needs away from differentiation per se and towards the concept of “personalized learning” (PL).
When I was a student way back in the 80s, my classroom consisted of rows of desks where we students would sit for eight hours a day listening to the teacher “instruct” us. As you can imagine, I had peers who struggled a lot. My classroom was riddled with “behavior problems,” kids who just didn’t understand the content, students who always did poorly on the tests and quizzes, and children who went home feeling mentally beat up every single day.
Like many schools, ours accepts some students who are beginning Jewish day school in middle or high school. How can we support these transfer students’ integration into the Tanakh classroom?
The Rashi School recently designated a math specialist to mobilize teachers’ collaboration around meeting students’ diverse learning needs in mathematics. This specialist works in partnership with teachers to interpret and apply real-time data, assess student mastery, and identify opportunities for student development. Central to this collaboration between educators is ongoing reflection, information sharing, and goal-oriented adaptation of teaching approach based on documentation of each student’s learning.