In-Depth: Student-Led Education

Who is making the decisions behind how your kids learn? It turns out they are

In-Depth: Student-Led EducationMuch is familiar from my own school days on the warm June morning I visit Brother André Catholic School, nestled in the green hills of suburban Ajax, Ont.: the yellow buses delivering students, the friendly crossing guard, the palpable feeling of summer vacation just around the corner. But after standing for a jazzed-up version of O Canada and sitting through a number of announcements, I immediately notice something very different about Jaime Wilkinson’s Grade 4 class.

The room, and the teaching, is much more personal. The desks are grouped in clusters, not rows, and, after a lesson on media awareness, the students are asked to independently select a method of approaching their in-class work — based on individual learning style — from something called a “choice board,” a simple piece of easel paper taped to the board offering four different options. A great deal of chatter and activity ensues: kids drawing movie posters here; there a raucous, boardroom-style discussion, debating the relative merits of an advertising idea; in the corner, one lone letter writer, penning a missive to a magazine editor; and nearby, a line of students, waiting to have their own alternative ideas for an activity cleared by Wilkinson. The difference is the differentiation. To me, it looks like a classroom out of control, but Wilkinson assures me that’s not the case. “It’s ordered chaos. It is really productive. The kids have to talk, because talking is how they learn and express their ideas. It’s okay that it’s noisy,” says Wilkinson. “And,” she adds, “it works. You can see the evidence that the kids are learning and are really engaged.” This is reflected in the students’ grades and progress, but perhaps more importantly, in what she sees and hears from her class. “In today’s lesson we didn’t have time to finish, and I had kids asking me if they could stay in at recess to complete their projects. The students chose their activity, so they really took ownership of it. And, at the end, when the kids viewed one another’s work, I could really tell from their comments what they had learned.”

Wilkinson’s class isn’t part of a cutting-edge pilot program or some alternative approach taken by a fringe school, daringly trying new things. This is the new face of education in Canada. Educators have been gradually discarding old models of lesson planning in favour of something called differentiated instruction, a method that is based on the needs, strengths and weaknesses of the individual learner and includes a great deal of choice and variation. Only 10 years ago, it was commonplace for a teacher to stand at the front of the room and deliver a lesson to the kids in the academic middle of the class (neither the strongest nor the weakest), in hopes of hitting the bulk of students. That practice, observes Dr. Steven Katz, a cognitive psychologist and senior lecturer at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, is now becoming a relic — and with good reason. “The whole idea of teaching to the middle was all about saying, “To what extent can I use an average or an aggregate to approximate the individual?’ It’s like saying, “I can cut a doorway that will fit a five-foot person on the basis of the fact that I measured two people, and one was four feet tall and the other was six foot.’ The five-foot doorway doesn’t suit either of them well,” says Dr. Katz.

While teachers say that some parents don’t fully understand the new approach, Christina Newth believes that differentiation is better. Newth’s son, Daniel, 11, and two daughters, Ashley, 9, and Amber, 5, all attend Brother André. “Each child learns differently, and there’s a lot more emphasis today on making sure everyone can read and write. When I went to school, people were just passed through the system. Now the focus is on getting at the reasons why some kids aren’t successful and helping them,” she says. Newth observes that all three of her kids love school, a sentiment shared by the kids I chatted with in Wilkinson’s class. “If you like to write, you write, and if you like to draw, you draw,” says Meaghan, 10. Alyshea, also 10, agrees. “We’re all different, and we have different ways of showing who we are. It helps us express ourselves.”

But it’s not just about self-expression. The shift, says Dr. Katz, has been spurred by scientific revelations about how children learn and develop. Previous teaching practices, he says, saw the mind as a vessel that we were looking to put information into. But “now we realize that kids come to any learning encounter already knowing all sorts of stuff.” So today’s educators look first at the needs, interests, aptitudes and preconceptions of those doing the learning. While some of this is related to multiple intelligences and learning styles — the idea that some kids learn better by touching and moving (kinesthetic), seeing (visual), hearing (auditory), and so on — Dr. Katz notes that this is only part of the equation. Instruction should respond to everything that a child brings into a classroom. “We work as human beings to make meaning of our world by essentially filtering novel experiences through what we already think, believe and know,” he observes. “As teachers, our first order of business is to say, “What is it that you’re already bringing?”

beyond the unit tests

Diagnostic tools like reading and math programs with built-in scoring guides to help teachers assess learning levels and data about each child, from informal feedback to weekly-updated enumerations of a child’s reading progress, are very important helpmates. Teachers have, of course, always gathered data about their students. The difference now is the nature of that data, and especially its use. Previously, notes Dr. Carol Rolheiser, former associate dean of teacher education at OISE and incoming 2009 director of the Office of Teaching Advancement at the University of Toronto, most assessment was of learning, in order to evaluate students, assign grades and write report cards, something that is obviously still a part of our education system. But now teachers do a great deal more assessment for learning — gathering data, from initial diagnostic tests to a great variety of very precise information-gathering techniques utilized all through the year. Tools like running records (where a teacher will sit one-on-one with a child, have him read aloud from a levelled book and, using a list, check off each of the things he is doing properly, as well as errors) tell a teacher how well individual students have understood the material, how they compare with the rest of the class, and how to determine the next steps in their education. All of this is utilized to select a course of action that will suit each learner. “Let’s say I’m a golfer. I can use all of these wonderful clubs in my bag and I can play the game, but if I actually don’t know when to use the three-iron and when to use a wood and when to use the putter, then I’m not going to have the greatest degree of success or see improvement over time,” says Dr. Rolheiser. “It’s much better for me to be able to make conscious decisions about what club to use and at what time. And obviously, with assessment and instructional decisions in teaching, we’re dealing with much greater complexity than a few clubs in a bag.”

Just how the “clubs” are deployed depends on the teacher, school and board. At Brother André, teachers begin the year by administering an assessment package created by educators at the school, which gives them an initial snapshot of the math, grammar and writing skills of each student. Then, throughout the year, specialized programs and tools are implemented — sometimes at the beginning of each term, or unit, or week — to constantly gather data. And that information reaches all the way to the top. “Data is now a big part of my job,” says Neil Boland, the school’s principal. Boland and classroom teachers create 10-week “data walls” for every student at the school, which chart, with simple blue and green dots on poster paper, where a student is at, where the educators believe the student should be, and the student’s actual progress. The data walls command an entire room at the school, a sign of their importance. “The differentiated instruction allows teachers to take the curriculum, use the data that they have and their knowledge of where a child is, and tailor it to meet their needs, but still make it a challenging yet attainable goal,” says Boland.

choose your own adventure

Guided reading sessions are a staple of differentiated instruction. In Mary Fournier’s Grade 1 classroom at Joseph A. Gibson Public School in Maple, Ont., Fournier begins the session by modelling reading for the entire class. She points out potential problems that might befall her little readers while she reads and thinks aloud and demonstrates desired skills in a very deliberate way. Then students are released to their seats, grouped at hexagonal tables. These are not the groups of old — selected randomly, arranged simply out of convenience. “All of the children in a guided reading group are being supported in a certain kind of reading strategy,” says Fournier. She gives a couple of examples. “In the first group, the children are paying attention to visual cues, but they read like robots, so I’m going to pay attention to phrasing and fluency. But then the next group may phrase well and be fluent, but when they get stuck on a word, they’re not using the strategies I’ve taught.” Interest also plays a role in the groupings. “You have to get to know the children. If I know that little Faith loves guinea pigs, then I’ll try and find a book around her level about guinea pigs and she’ll be more motivated to read.”

Fournier will sit at one table and work with individual students, having them read to her, guiding them as they do so, and keeping a running record of their progress. Meanwhile, the rest of the class sit in their groups and work on projects that demonstrate their understanding of their books. “Our teachers used to say, “Open your books to page 247 and do questions one through 10.’ That’s not what you see in my class,” says Fournier. Instead, she says, “I’m down on the carpet with about four children doing a guided reading group, other children are filling in different types of graphic organizers, and when the children who are at the tables are finished their task, they proceed to one of several literacy activities, which are organized around the different intelligences. There’s a listening centre where kids put on headphones and listen to a story while they look at the book, computers, or a puppet theatre where children re-enact a story. What they’re all doing is showing me they are learning, but in many different ways.”

Newth is convinced that a differentiated approach is providing her kids with a better education. “If you analyzed it and broke it down, I think that children today are learning more,” she says. “The expectations today are much higher than when I went to school. Some of the things they’re learning in Grade 3 we probably looked at when we were in Grade 6.”

across the board

But it’s not just about individual classrooms and schools. The shift to differentiated instruction is being supported by large-scale initiatives undertaken by entire boards. At the York Region District School Board in central Ontario, a program known as the Literacy Collaborative brings classroom teachers together with teams of administrators and literacy teachers who are well-versed in the use of data and differentiated techniques to discuss individual students and strategies to meet their needs. The board also promotes the remote sharing of best practices by filming teachers and interviewing them afterward about their techniques.

The Calgary Board of Education has also instituted extensive teacher training in its shift toward the 3Ds (data, diagnostics and differentiated instruction). Moreover, the board is taking steps toward having every single student receive an individual educational portfolio and a learning plan, which he will take with him from class to class and even school to school. The board also offers something called the Calgary Campus/Open Minds program, which allows students who don’t learn well in a structured classroom setting to get out into the world and take part in week-long experiential opportunities. In addition, the board has made the new technology that aids differentiated learning — from laptops to SMART boards to video conferencing — a top priority. “We’ve shifted to individuals being more self-directed, self-realized and focused on being masters of knowledge in an ongoing and changing information society,” says Cathy Faber, director of Curriculum and Learning Technologies at the Calgary Board of Education.

In Saskatoon, comprehensive reforms are underway, notes Mark Wilderman, collegiate renewal facilitator for Saskatoon Public Schools. Most notable are the two major pilot programs the board will be mounting in the 2008″“2009 school year. In one school, streaming will be completely eliminated from Grade 9, and students will have more contact for longer blocks of time with a small team of teachers (each of whom will be well trained in classroom assessment and differentiated instruction). A second pilot will focus on mathematics, a subject that has been amongst the most resistant to the shift. Through intensive discussions with one another, attendance at conferences and training by professors, these math teachers will have many tools placed at their disposal. Most remarkable is the individual attention paid. Students entering the pilot will complete a diagnostic assessment to determine math skills, individual learning styles and interests, and, based on the results, an educational program will be designed for each student that addresses her weaknesses and strengths, and places emphasis on the areas where she needs work.

resistance is futile

With any major shift, opposition is inevitable. And, because of the hefty amount of work needed to diligently assess data and thoughtfully plan differentiation (much more than that required in the old, stand-and-deliver model), it’s easy to understand why some educators — especially those who have been at it, and have used the same methods (and lesson plans), for years and years — are not happy with the movement toward the new 3Ds. As one of the primary officials spurring change in the Saskatoon board, Wilderman has been exposed to the slings and arrows of the disgruntled. But he’s not troubled. “I wear a full-body armour suit,” laughs Wilderman, noting that a good number of teachers see the advantages for students and have climbed on board.

Garry Davis, a math teacher who has been in the classroom for 23 years, likes the idea of differentiation, but will not be completely won over until he sees it work for his students, and so is looking forward to teaching in the new Grade 9 mathematics pilot. But he knows it won’t be easy. “At times, if I’m going to be really honest, it’s frightening, but I’m ready for a challenge,” says Davis. “The lens I always look through is: Will this be beneficial for my students? And to be honest, if I didn’t think it would be, then I wouldn’t be doing it.” He notes that, even if the implementation in the early stages is imperfect, it will still be better than standing at the front of the room and lecturing. “What we tend to do with kids is say, “You need to work on your fraction skills,’ and then leave it up to them. It’s like telling my son, who plays hockey, that he needs to skate faster. He probably knows that, but unless I put some things in place to help him reach that goal, it’s not very helpful.” Davis is hopeful that exploring these new techniques in his math classes will give him new options.

At present, the shift to differentiation is incomplete. Even those who skillfully use it in their lessons do not do so in every one, or even every day. One of the main stumbling blocks is the sheer amount of work and the vast teaching repertoire required, notes Dr. Katz, as differentiated instruction, fully realized in a class, means that each of the 25 or 30 students is like a one-on-one tutoring client. But experts and educators agree that the future is all about the 3Ds. “It is absolutely where we’re heading. It’s where we’re heading as far as education policy is concerned and in terms of what research is telling us. It’s definitely something that we’re working towards,” says Dr. Katz.

Back at Brother André, Boland agrees. “I think there’s still a lot of work to be done, but we’re past the tipping point,” he says. “We’re evolving toward every student being on an individual education plan.”

When contributing editor Tim Johnson was in school — not so long ago — desks were in rows, chalk was still in full use and data was sometimes tabulated on a calculator wristwatch.


IE: An Individual Education Plan, tailor-made to a student’s needs. Usually reserved for a child who has been identified as exceptional in some way. Sometimes known by another name, such as Personal Program Plan (in Saskatchewan).

Data: Refers to the information teachers gather, using a number of tools, to determine where an individual student stands in her learning and the next steps that should be taken on her educational path. This is known as assessment for learning (as opposed to the more traditional assessment of learning, which produces grades and report cards).

Diagnostics: The series of tests and tools administered by teachers (in combination with observations), often at the beginning of the year, to determine and “diagnose” each child’s learning level in a number of subjects.

Differentiated Instruction: The process by which an educator will deliver material based on the individual needs, aptitudes, intelligences, preconceptions and interests of students. A number of options for activities and evaluation are typically offered, kids often work in groups, and teachers usually move about the room, working one-on-one with students while the rest of the class works cooperatively or on their own.

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