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Online June 2009 | Volume 66
Revisiting Teacher Learning
J Dianne Brederson
A college professor reconnects with her own teaching philosophy and discovers that student-centered learning works at every grade level.
"I felt that today I had an opportunity to learn things for myself instead of being told what to learn." This gratifying student comment was written on an exit slip after a seminar for student teachers this past spring—the first seminar I taught after returning from a workshop on differentiated instruction (DI) this spring.
For me, the workshop sparked a paradigm shift and a return to differentiated instruction. I say "return" because DI had been central to my work as an English as a foreign language and physical education instructor in the Peace Corps from 1991 to 1993. Later, I had relied on differentiated instruction when I created and implemented the first International Baccalaureate French curriculum at an international high school in 1996.
But along the way, I had stopped differentiating. How had this happened? How had I fallen into the trap of following a text and the master syllabus step-by-step?
The answer is simple. As a new assistant professor at the college level, I had been lured by the simplicity, efficiency, and one-size-fits-all appeal of lectures and PowerPoint presentations. I had lost sight of the heart of my own educational philosophy, which values individuality, embraces multiple perspectives, and puts the needs of each student first. I had forgotten that all students are individual learners regardless of age, area of study, and number of requirements left to fulfill before graduation.
ASCD's conference in Orlando—including the three-day DI workshop, other professional sessions, and numerous discussions with colleagues—helped me begin to question the strategies I was using in my student-teacher seminars. During a break at the workshop, I had the opportunity to talk with Carol Ann Tomlinson, the leading expert on differentiated instruction. She generously looked over the outline I had developed for my next student-teaching seminar, which would be on a topic dear to my heart: raising awareness of diversity and increasing cultural competence among students. She made some suggestions and encouraged me to continue integrating differentiation into the seminar plan.
I began that first postconference seminar with a differentiated diagnostic activity to find out what my student teachers already knew about diversity and cultural competence. Students chose one of three tasks that reflected the three intelligences identified by Sternberg (1985):
I was fascinated to see which students picked which task.
After students had completed their chosen task, I put them in groups to share their work and to brainstorm how they might adapt this activity for their own students across disciplines and grade levels. I heard excited chatter, many thoughtful questions, and exclamations of "Oh yeah!" as they shared their student-teaching experiences related to diversity and cultural competence. The class's level of participation and willingness to share ideas had never been higher. Students wanted to know more.
On their exit slips, the students commented that being able to choose a task according to learning preferences had increased their motivation, engagement, and participation. The students were hooked. I was energized!
Next, I incorporated differentiation into an activity that I had used before—an adapted version of the "blue eyes/brown eyes" experiment that teacher Jane Elliot conducted with her 3rd grade students beginning in the 1960s (Peters, 1987). Elliott divided her students into two groups according to their eye color, treating blue-eyed students as the privileged group on the first day and brown-eyed students as the privileged group on the second day. This exercise, which has been adapted and repeated in many different settings, gives participants the opportunity to experience how it feels to be both the victim of prejudice and the oppressor. The goal is to help students understand different perspectives and develop feelings of empathy.
In my version of the blue eyes/brown eyes exercise, I arbitrarily draw purple stars on some students' hands with my eyes closed and then invite the ones with stars to join me on the carpet to read Dr. Seuss's story The Sneetches (Random House, 1961), which explores the absurdity of prejudice through the tale of creatures who judge one another on the basis of whether they have stars on their bellies. I tell the students without stars to sit wherever they want at the tables away from the group. The students with stars receive a treat; those without stars do not. I purposefully involve the students with stars in the reading by allowing them to read from the book, maintaining eye contact, and using encouraging body language. I ignore the students without stars.
Afterward, I invite all the students to sit together on the floor for a silent reflection while music plays. Then we discuss the questions, How did you feel when you did not receive a star or a treat? Did you feel left out when the readers turned their backs to you so you couldn't see the book? How do you think the other students felt? I ask the students to discuss in pairs whether they might adapt this type of an activity for use with their own students.
After I took the workshop on differentiated instruction, I incorporated differentiation into this exercise by creating a followup RAFT (Role/Audience/Format/Topic) activity. I invited students to reflect on the theme of The Sneetches using one of the options for different topics or format shown in Figure 1.
Essential question: How might prejudice and discrimination affect teaching and learning?
Self or teacher
Diary entry or journal reflection
Why I wanted a star
Sylvester McMonkey McBean
How I made lots of money by knowing that "you can't teach a Sneetch"
Star-bellied or plain-bellied Sneetch in a mixed marriage
Doodle or mind map of words/phrases
How can I teach my child about diversity?
Top 10 list
Why it's best to have a star
Student teachers or first-year teachers
Identify subliminal biased messages in the classroom
Students in your classroom
How might prejudice on the playground, on the bus, at lunch, in gym, and so on affect teaching and learning?
Students then shared their work in groups and discussed the essential question, How might prejudice and discrimination affect teaching and learning? I grouped students with a variety of readiness levels and roles together so that each individual could benefit from others' perspectives and each group could discuss the essential question at varying depths. As a final step, students completed a quick write in which they reflected on the other group members' perspectives and the implications for their own student teaching.
To determine how this group of student teachers responded to the incorporation of DI principles in their seminar, I added three questions to the exit slips they completed each time we met:
The students' responses suggested that differentiated instruction made a difference for all of them. Ten out of 11 indicated that they had noticed the use of learning preferences. Comments included, "Much emphasis on different types of learning styles," "Learner-centered," and "We could make our own choices in the various activities that fit our learning style." Two students indicated their own personal learning preference when they said, "Wasn't as stressful today! More light-hearted" and "Loved the music! Very relaxing."
Seven of 11 students commented that they liked the opportunity to discuss with classmates. One student hinted at empathy when he said, "A lot of reflection today, and it helped me think about things and hear how others felt about the topics we were talking about." Three students explained that they enjoyed the interaction and the activities involving movement.
Five of 11 students said that they appreciated the time to reflect and apply information to their current classrooms. Some commented that learning about practical strategies they could use in the classroom to increase their students' awareness of diversity and cultural competence was important to them.
I left that seminar feeling energized by the realization that a teaching method in which I believe had worked so well to create engaged learning for college students. And I felt hopeful that this group of student teachers will focus on creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving to promote global awareness and multiculturalism with their own students, wherever they teach.
My next step is to examine my existing course syllabi and consider how I can incorporate essential understandings and differentiated instruction into the required content in all courses. Tomlinson (2003) maintains that "it is important to begin with the conviction that we are no longer teaching if what we teach is more important than who we teach or how we teach it" (p. 10). I admit that I lost sight of this principle as I struggled to find my way as a new assistant professor.
What do I want my students to know and be able to do when they leave each seminar and return to their own classrooms? How will I evaluate these students who are only weeks away from joining faculties and participating in a variety of professional conversations in multiple school districts and communities? How will I build and promote a community among these learners who come together as a class only five or six times during the semester?
I don't have all the answers today, but I know where I am heading. I am eager to create meaningful experiences in which all students will feel that I am not telling them what to learn, but providing opportunities for them to learn for themselves.
Peters, W. (1987). A class divided: Then and now. Princeton, NJ: Yale University Press.
Sternberg, R. (1985). Beyond IQ: A triarchic theory of human intelligence. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Tomlinson, C. A. (2003). Fulfilling the promise of the differentiated classroom: Strategies and tools for responsive teaching. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
J Dianne Brederson is Assistant Professor, Department of Teacher Education and Professional Development, Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, Michigan.
Copyright © 2009 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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