Meeting Every Child Where They Are: Ensuring Education is Accessible to All
By: Dr. Amoy Hugh-Pennie, PhD, BCBA-D,
Director of Inclusive Education at The Harbour School
When people hear the term differentiation in the context of education, they often think of it in connection to special education needs. Although this may be the case in some instances that is not the original intent. Differentiation is when academic and other forms of instruction are individualized to meet the needs of all students. In economics and marketing it is a way to differentiate products and services from others on the market by making them unique to their user base and easier or more attractive to access or use. In education we use similar methods as a way to respond to the subtle differences across learners. We do not all grow at the same rate neither do we learn that way. Differentiation allows teachers to take what they know about their students and incorporate their interests and abilities into how they learn and express learning. The way that we help to “unlock the best” in all of our students at The Harbour School is to ensure that all students have the same opportunities to play to their strengths while developing skills to improve academically, emotionally and socially.
The formula is to ensure that the whole school community of teachers, parents, students and staff understand our mission of inclusion. Inclusion is not just educating students alongside each other in the same classroom. Inclusion means that we integrate strategies incorporated in Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is a strategy used to identify possible barriers in the learning environment and then determine ways to reduce or eliminate them so all students can be successful. Some ways to do that are to ensure teachers use multiple modalities for providing instruction, ensure that all students have access to content information required to gain knowledge in a particular area or subject, and offer students choices of how to present their understanding of the material.
At The Harbour School we begin with student goal setting based on what we observe of students learning as well as formal and informal assessments and parent feedback in student goal setting and review meetings. We use curriculum-based assessments as well as standardized assessments such as International School Assessments (ISA) and Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) growth scores, to determine what our school as a whole and what individual students need to meet their objectives. This is done by allowing students choice in their learning, providing opportunities for different ways to access content (e.g. books, newspapers, oral delivery of information,graphic novels, pictures, video, etc.), and allowing students to express what they know through multiple sources (e.g. written text, art, performance, video recordings, etc.). It is a process that uses what we know of UDL to work backwards from assessment (what we want students to know) to the introduction of material (what and how we prepare to teach students).
Teachers benefit from differentiating their curriculum because they have a higher rate of students who can access, learn and master the material. This is ultimately every teacher’s goal. Additionally, teachers have less behavioral concerns in the classroom when all students can experience learning at the appropriate level of difficulty. Students benefit because they are no longer told that they can only do things one way. Through choice they are seen as autonomous human beings rather than an age or grade that provides one prescriptive way of ‘being’ or ‘doing’. At THS we do this through regular and collaborative planning where all teachers, co-teachers, learning support and extension teachers come together to discuss, review and plan curriculum at the grade level. All the while keeping in mind what would decrease barriers for most students while further individualizing for those who may need something more, less or different. I am sure at some point we have all heard or made the statement, “There is more than one way to skin a cat!”. This is our motto regarding differentiation. Indeed, there is more than one way to teach, learn and/or solve a problem.
No longer are we forced into and old way of thinking that the teacher’s way is the only way or the best way of doing something. Teachers are now at liberty to be more flexible and innovative in their approach by taking all of their students interests, abilities, and strengths into account when grouping, instructing and setting goals for students. We have many students who are advanced of their grade in one or more subjects. In these cases if the teacher does not take into account the students strengths the student would be doomed to sit in class and hear repetition after repetition of what they already know thus wasting their precious instructional time and likely disrupting others when they could be gaining a much deeper understanding through an assignment that just differs slightly or dramatically from other students in class or from alternate instruction. On the other end of that is the student who has not yet become fluent in math facts but given the right tools and materials can build a product that requires the use of the same mathematical principles as the lesson being assessed rather than feeling they have nothing to contribute or are less capable than their peers.
You may ask how this is relevant or important in the “real world”? Consider you are in a position of management. Do you expect all of your employees to have the same skill set? Do you expect that everyone on your team will equally enjoy different aspects of the job? Are you a confident public speaker? Do you prefer to be behind the scenes? Every day and in every way we encounter people who are unique individuals with unique interests, strengths, and perspectives. It is important to be able to learn and understand individuals as autonomous human beings to ensure healthy positive and productive relationships in all aspects of life. School should be no different.