Friday, October 18, 2013

Differentiating Instruction

Looking at a classroom that is running in Harkness mode, it is easy to see that many of the best practices we are supposed to implement are happening.  The classroom is student-centered.  The students are highly engaged. The students are taking responsibility for their own learning.  However, one thing that people perceive as missing is differentiation.  "You mean that they do this discussion thing every day?  What about the kids who have trouble learning this way?"

One of the things I used to question a few years ago was how to structure a lecture in such a way that I would be able to reach the variety of kids in my classroom.  And honestly I used to pass off the idea of making that happen as impossible.  Over the course of the week I might have been able to teach one day or one part of one day for each of the kids, but to try to reach each of the kids every day during every lesson was simply not an option.  So, I relegated the idea where I normally relegated all such ideas: into the category of "educational theory that isn't in touch with reality".

However, with Harkness, what I have found is that the differentiation all but takes care of itself.  Early in the trimester, it is fairly common for the kids to ask if it's ok for them to attempt to solve an exercise a certain way.  "Am I allowed to draw a picture for this?"  "I found a formula...can I use it?"  But after a few days of hearing me say, "Yep, if you think a picture will help," or "As long as you can explain where the formula comes from,", the kids begin to figure out that they can use pretty much whatever method they can devise and understand.  Slowly they begin to take responsibility for their own learning, and once that happens they begin to figure out how they learn best.  Does drawing a picture help, or do the equations make more sense?  Or is it some combination of the two...or something else that works best?  Because they aren't being told how to solve the exercises, they tend to head for their comfort zone rather than doing what they're told, and in that the instruction is differentiated.  Granted, the kids who are stuck in memorization mode don't reach this point as quickly since they are spending their time desperately looking for someone to imitate rather than working through the material themselves.  But even in that search these kids tend to find which of the other students attacks the exercises in a way they understand, and in that the instruction is differentiated.

So yes, we do this discussion thing every day.  And it's the most differentiated the instruction has ever been in my classroom.


  1. I have a question that may be rather off topic. I am a school librarian for a private boarding school with a wide range of students. We have high achievers and students well behind "grade level." I also teach AP Lit. I use Harkness for this class, and it goes exceptionally well.

    Two weeks ago our 9th grade English teacher resigned, and I was asked to take two of the classes. I don't really want to teach except via student-centered discussion. However, it's been a complete flop for one of the classes. The previous quarter with the old teach was a lot of take turns reading in class, traditional grammar worksheets, and lectures about writing mechanics. They were never asked to learn anything (independently, but really at all), and therefore are resistant to me putting more of the burden on them.

    Anyway, my question is if you have had classes, or at least a large group of students, resistant to what you're doing? How did you or would you handle it? If everyone in the class has a failing mark is that a reflection of my inflexibility or do I hold out until they soften up to the discussion model?

    I do appreciate any feedback you might have, there doesn't seem to be much available about Harkness when it's going drastically wrong...

  2. I have had the good fortune that my kids are reasonably motivated, so aside from a few kids in each of the sections I've not had this experience.

    That being said, my question would be whether or not the kids are doing the homework. If they're not willing to do the necessary work outside of class, then their lack of success makes perfect sense. And if they weren't asked to do much if any work outside of class with the previous teacher, then you requiring them to do so may actually be what they are resistant to. In which case, it's not the method that's the problem, it's the lack of work ethic. Perhaps giving them one of the grammar worksheets for homework and seeing how many students complete the assignment can give you a feel for this...just an initial thought.

    1. They readily admit that they're not doing the reading homework/ note taking I have asked them to do (about 20-25 minutes worth of work per night). It's hard to tell at this point in the quarter if grades will be a motivating enough of a force to get them to do it. They're not internally motivated yet (as opposed to AP kids or kids at PEA), that's for sure. It's frustrating that they won't do it, because this doesn't allow the process to work. I have faith they will enjoy it once it gets going, but I'm worried they're not going to take the first step in accepting they must be responsible for their learning.

      I don't want to let them off the hook and go back to reading only in class with minimal discussion time. I'm not sure what will happen with my relationship to the admin if 80% of these students are failing by midterm. :/

      Anyway, please keep doing what you're doing with the blog. It's been a great resource for me.

  3. If they're not doing the work you are asking them to do, then I would say just make sure you are documenting it, not necessarily taking a "homework grade" every day, but definitely keeping track of who is doing the work and who isn't.

    If they're used to being spoon fed the information and pretty much dictating the way the classroom is run, then it makes sense that they are resisting you. On the other hand, eventually someone is going to hold them accountable, whether it's at another school or at a job. Far better that they learn how to follow the lead of the person in charge now, when the person in charge actually cares about them and their success, rather than later.

    Hang in there...