School Board Learns About Learning

School board members, school administrators, and teachers gathered last week for a special session of Clarke County School Board dedicated to understanding how teachers can better reach students with varying skills and interests using an instructional technique known as “differentiation”. The three-hour discussion, organized by Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Lisa Floyd, featured two of Clarke County’s premiere instructors who demonstrated the effectiveness of the technique when properly executed.

Differentiation in the CCPS Classrooms

Thinking back to younger days, most people will remember their school classrooms as a mix of students with many different interests and abilities. Some classmates may have been interested in sports while others had an interest in music. Some students found reading “easy” while others struggled to decode the words on a page. Still other students expressed themselves easily by writing but some found it easier to communicate ideas verbally.

CCPS Superintendent Michael Murphy is asked to read his definition of "differentiation" by reading specialist Donna Michael at a recent School Board meeting - photo Edward Leonard

Little has changed in today’s modern classroom with regard to the challenges of teaching to a wide range of skill levels. What has changed is the focus on professional teaching techniques, like differentiation, aimed at helping students learn in ways best suited to the student’s individual strengths and learning style.

A Model Class

For demonstration purposes, the meeting participants were divided into three broad learning groups; “Remedial Learners”, “At Grade Level” and “Gifted & Talented”. Elementary school reading specialist Donna Michael confidently assumed her customary position at the front of the classroom while the adult “students”, positioned in their respective learning groups, sat in chairs at table designed for smaller torsos. Michael quickly took charge of the class and demonstrated that her teaching methods have everything to do with ensuring effective learning and are transportable even to a group of faux-students that included the superintendent of schools.

Michael demonstrated a rich mix of professional teaching techniques and supportive phrases designed to reach her students on a range of levels in order to build the confidence that is so important to learning.

Michael assigned each of the three learning groups to define the phrase “differentiation”. As students worked Michael walked between table groups using different approaches aimed at various learning levels to help the teams accomplish the assigned task.

“Tell me what the word sounds like phonetically,” Michael instructed one learning group as she drew a picture of an “ear” on the chalkboard. “What does the word look like?” she asked a second group while drawing an “eye”.

In many ways, differentiation instruction has always been used by teachers. In early days, a “good” teacher instinctively knew how to use the interests and abilities of individual students to help each student learn in the way best suited to the individual. However, today, differentiation has matured into a formal technique that can be learned and perfected by all teachers.

Differentiation, as demonstrated by Michael, translated into a very effective and engaging learning experience that created a cohesive feel to overall class while simultaneously creating individual communication channels that Michael customized to each learner’s skill set.

JWMS science instructor David Borger demonstrates differentiated teaching approaches to school board members - Photo Edward Leonard

“We still have a few teachers in our system that stand at the front of the class room and deliver a single lesson style and we’re working on that,” Lisa Floyd said. “But we do have many teachers who differentiate in their classrooms.”

One Size Doesn’t Fit All Learners

Differentiation styles vary widely among instructors but differentiation techniques is accomplished in three different ways; the teacher can change the content (what information is learned) for different students; the teacher can change the process (how information is learned) for different students; the teacher can change the product (how a student shows what was learned)

David Borger, science department chairman at Johnson William Middle School, provided the evening’s second differentiation demonstration. While Michael’s teaching approach included the use of teaching aides and supportive phrases geared to her elementary school learners (“You just made my day with that answer! Kiss your brain!” Michael told the class as she waved a magic learning wand that vibrated with an audible tone when struck against an object), Borger’s style includes the same differentiation techniques but was delivered in a manner suited to more mature sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

“Not all students are the same and not all students should be taught in the same way,” Borger told the group. “By knowing how different students learn best, teachers can help them learn the best way possible. Teachers do this by changing the content, the process, or the product for different students.”

Martha and Marvin

To illustrate his point, Borger told an engaging fictional story about an old married couple, Marvin and Martha, sitting on the porch of their remote county farmhouse one Sunday afternoon. As a series of lost motorists stop for directions Marvin attempts to give a complex series of directions based on how he would navigate to the nearest town. Martha his wife, however, understands the power of differentiated learning and instead asks each of the lost motorists how the motorist best learns things before formulating instructions for reaching the desired destination.

One of the lost motorists responds to the learning query saying “Well, I’m not very good with words, and I can never figure out maps. Paint a mental picture for me!”

Martha then gives the driver a few directions, filled with colors of barns and shapes of landscape, and then asks the driver to repeat the verbal descriptions. Once Martha is sure that the driver has the first part of the picture additional images are included to illustrate the next steps.

David Borger (l) responds to a question posed by Dr. Michael Murphy - Photo Edward Leonard

As the last driver happily speeds off and Martha returns to her seat on the porch Marvin concedes to Martha’s teaching abilities saying “You sure are pretty good with directions. Now can you help me find where I left my false teeth?”

Donna Michael said that lesson plan creation is a critical component in knowing how to handle different learning styles as well as learning as much as possible about her students before attempting to teach them.

“Networking and communication are big helps,” Michael said. “Sharing with other teachers about what works or does not work for a particular student is really important.

Floyd said that her goal for the presentation had been to help transform “differentiation” from an abstract concept into a more tangible idea.

“Experiencing differentiation in practice just makes it a little easier to see and understand.”

Superintendent Michael Murphy goes to the head of the class - Photo Edward Leonard