Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

What Should We Keep in Minds about Differentiation ?


In this age of educational technologies playing a more important role in classrooms, we speak about personlized learning and differentiation. But we barely heard of how to give students a comfortable and safe environment to explore learning instead of being marked “smart”, “average” or “dumb”. Until we found Matthew’s blog which reminds all of us a culture of everyone being valued. From You Are Not Your Grade to Awards for All, his reflections are inspiring. The article posted here is the practice how he implements his thoughts. As we bring technologies into classrooms, let’s keep this in minds so that technologies can serve every kid’s needs better!

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Invisible Differentiation: Grouping Without Groups

From the Desk of Mr. Foteah by Matthew S. Ray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Differentiated instruction is a practice that has many dimensions to it. My favorite at this point is what I like to call “grouping without groups.”

In this post, I will provide some examples of what grouping without groups looks like in my classroom so far this year. First, though, I’ll give a definition of it.

differentiation, differentiated learningThink of grouping without groups as a type of invisible differentiationReally all differentiation should be invisible.That is to say, the students should be of the impression that everyone is doing the same work. Otherwise, even if unintended, students wind up classified into groups based on who they wind up perceiving to be the smart kids and the dumb kids. This undermines community and engenders resentment from all.

So here are two examples of grouping without groups that have worked for me this year. (I find differentiation is easiest in math, and that’s where I have improved, so I am sharing math ideas).

Heterogenous Grouping – My students have struggled this year to work in groups – I’m not quite sure they’re developmentally there yet. When I’ve tried it, though, groupings have been “random.” I don’t assign groups based on who rocks at math and who struggles mightily. The groups appear random to the students, but I plan them a certain way. Each group has students of varying math abilities. In addition, the students are grouped based on personalities. To the students, the groups are arbitrary, but to me, they are guided by the hope that the students I put together will be able to effectively learn from and with each other. The big bonus: no one looks around the room identifying group A as “smart” and group D as “dumb.” Since they see no rhyme or reason to the groups, the students can better focus on the tasks before them. (image at left : A puzzle like this is the perfect analogy for heterogenous grouping.)

Same Concept, Different Levels. In my class, I have students who can add and subtract with counters and some who know their multiplication facts. The chasm between my “lowest” and “top” math students is quite, quite vast. Yet, they don’t need to know that.

A great way to differentiate invisibly is to give everyone what appears to be the same work, differentiated by difficulty. In a recent math assignment, students were unaware that there were three different problems passed around. To me, of course, it was based on understanding students’ current levels. All the students saw, though, was identical paper. Had they had the chance to look closer, they would have noticed differences:

Some students worked on this.

Others worked on this.

Still others worked on this.

See, everyone is doing the same work, only they’re doing it at a level that suits them. No one is singled out for being good at math or bad at math – everyone is just accepted as where they are. No value is assigned. That’s pretty much the essence of grouping without groups.

If you have other ways of making differentiation invisible, I would love for you to share them!

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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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