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Differentiated Instruction: A Practical Approach

Improving at anything takes practice. And not just any practice, but productive practice. If, for example, you want to be a better swimmer, it's counterproductive to spend hour after hour in the pool when your stroke is dreadful. Correct your stroke first, then swim laps. And correcting your stroke requires skillful coaching. Coaches can only help, however, if they know what you need help with--e.g., a swimming coach must see what's wrong with your stroke in order to help you get it right. Same goes for acting, music, art, and pretty much anything--including academics!

And when it comes to academics, you as the teacher must be that skillful coach. For students to become better writers, they should therefore not only write more, but write more in your presence. For them to master math, they need to do more math in your presence. A lot of teachers cling to the belief that if they prepare and deliver great lessons, kids will be ready to fly solo after a few minutes of independent practice. Homework, in turn, will be all the additional practice they need.

Wishful thinking, because even if your lessons are great, just as ten swimmers may need ten different adjustments to their strokes, students have a range of remediation needs. Sure homework is important, especially when kids are behind and need more practice to catch up. But sending them off to practice on their own without first practicing in your presence would be like a coach sending you off to swim lap after lap without first detecting and correcting a flaw in your stroke.

You do, of course, need to provide some whole-group instruction, and you should certainly make it as engaging as possible. But you should also make it as brief as possible. Forget the ideal of every student grasping every lesson. What's more important is that you present key information in a clear, organized way so that students have notes to refer to when the real learning begins--during practice. In fact, in my classroom, where I assigned students to heterogeneous groups for independent (and interdependent) practice, as soon as I was sure at least one student per group grasped a concept, I was ready to move on, since I now had a full complement of assistant coaches.

To put this in terms of time, in a typical 45 minute class, I suggest students be writing, doing math, etc. for a good 30 minutes (not necessarily consecutive, but in total when you combine all activities). And not with you on the sidelines grading papers or handling other administrative tasks. On the contrary, whether it's an opening warm-up activity or extended practice time, be sure to actively assess and, where necessary, assist students--with the emphasis on assessing, since just like with a swimming stroke, you as the coach must not only see the results of students' mistakes but the causes of them. It is then that you can provide (or facilitate through your "assistant coaches" and other resources) individualized coaching according to each student's needs.

What we're really talking about here, using today's education vernacular, is differentiated instruction (lower-case, since I'm not suggesting this is Differentiated Instruction--see my last post, Differentiated Instruction: What Difference Does it Make?). But it's been around for years in sports and other arenas, known simply as "practice and coaching." And it's this combination of practice and coaching that's a key to improvement, be it in school or the pool.


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