This post is part of a 6-part series highlighting how we, as IB teachers, can bring Approaches to Teaching to our classroom and challenge students to engage in Approaches to Learning.
In the previous installments of our series, we have shared ideas on instructional strategies that allow the simultaneous implementation of Approaches to Teaching and Learning (ATLs). These combine your teaching methods to students’ skills empowerment: inquiry and research, conceptual understanding and thinking, local-global contexts and communication, and teamwork and socialization.
This fifth post addresses how differentiated teaching can advance students’ thinking skills. In a previous post, we discussed a few aspects of thinking skills in the context of conceptual understanding. In the current installment, we will see how a cluster of specific thinking skills, that are put forward by both the IBO and contemporary educational research, can surface through differentiated teaching.
Acknowledge your students as individual learners through differentiated instruction
I distinctly recall my first, although remote, encounter with “differentiated instruction”. It was during a meeting with the Head of School for the discussion of my annual evaluation after he had observed one of my IB classes. I was confident that his report would be a good one until he asked me something like what measures do you take to support talented students?
My instant thoughts were: “Should I do something special for such students?” and “I don’t have the time for this anyway.” My actual response was about the different levels of difficulty in homework assignments, which is more than common in everyday practice, but can hardly be considered a “special measure.” I don’t know what he wrote down in my file, but at least his question was thought-provoking for me.
In general education, where the IB Diploma Programme (DP) belongs, we have to teach “students with learning difficulties, gifted students, and students with no identified exceptionality” (Altemueller & Lindquist, 2017). We can’t turn a blind eye to this learning diversity in our classroom. On the contrary, we must consider it a top priority while we do our best to meet the curriculum goals and fulfill the overall DP mission.
“Differentiated instruction” is perhaps the most prominent of those strategies we know we should use, but we are reluctant to do so. It might scare us away because we think it relates to special education for students with particular needs and abilities, for which only a few of us have official training. And if the strategy addresses all students individually, it seems extremely time-consuming to prepare all-embracing lessons throughout the year.
💡 “Differentiation” doesn’t refer to special education. It addresses the approach of every student’s needs, but this doesn’t mean that we will turn our class into private tutoring lessons.
In the context of the constructivist approach, “differentiated learning” takes place beyond our control. Every student processes the content, the skills and the concepts we teach in a personalized way, whether we like it or not. What calls for deliberate differentiation is our own teaching, in order to effectively meet all students’ learning needs. How do we achieve this within our limited time in the classroom?
Promote an environment that welcomes all learners
If you are using a teacher-centered teaching approach, it will be markedly harder or more time-consuming for you to pursue differentiated teaching. “Differentiation puts the focus on learners and it is a learner-centered approach that is aimed to help students succeed regardless of the differences” (Bajrami, 2013). Any student-centered technique will definitely give you an edge, but it’s not always clear how you can focus on every student without neglecting the rest of the class as a whole entity.
The answer to this riddle can be the “flipped classroom”. This is an innovative teaching methodology that has drawn the educational community’s attention during the last decade. The term seems self-explanatory, but it is actually misleading. The “flipping” doesn’t refer to the exchange of roles between the teacher and the students; it reflects a completely different instructional approach that can accommodate your plans for all-inclusive teaching.
The implementation of the flipped classroom suggests this model (Abeysekera & Dawson, 2015):
To make this work in practice, you have to guide your students towards valid resources that will allow them to grasp the necessary information in advance of an upcoming lesson. This way, when you meet with them you can skip the traditional “one-man-show” and proceed immediately to activities that will clarify and deepen the material they covered on their own time. As for homework, they should elaborate on the in-class assignments and then proceed to the next course.
It may already be visible how this inquiry cycle (inquiry-action-reflection) throws the ball in the students’ court. They now have the freedom and the responsibility to process their learning at their own pace. To them, you are no longer an instructor but a facilitator who walks them through their educational journey.
💡 Taking the traditional time-consuming lectures during a class period off the table gives you plenty of time to focus on each students’ needs.
At the beginning of each session, you can offer a range of tiered activities of increasing difficulty and prompt the students to work with those that make them feel most comfortable and productive. That will give you an insight into their learning engagement and room to provide further support according to their needs.
This process can be supported by teamwork. If you have a big class, form groups with partial homogeneity in their chosen activities so you can focus on two or three students at once, plus make use of their collaboration with their teammates productively. The weaker students will benefit from your exclusive attention and the more advanced group members can act as “teacher’s assistants.” Students with sufficient understanding push themselves even further when you prompt them to share their knowledge, and afterward, you can turn your focus to them to discuss more difficult tasks.
Enable every student to achieve personal learning goals
From the teaching point of view, the flipped classroom allows us to differentiate instruction in regard to our students’ abilities. Meanwhile, from the learning point of view, each student works with the pace and material most appropriate for achieving their personal learning benchmarks. This is a win-win because students are involved in a process that actively enhances their thinking skills.
Beyond classical taxonomies of thinking skills, educational reform towards constructivism focuses on the promotion of three major student “thinking constructs:” critical thinking, metacognition, and reflection (IBO, 2015). In a few words, these elements refer to students’ knowledge of their thinking resources, management of such resources, and willingness to enact on them. These are in perfect alignment with the inquiry process in the flipped classroom. However, we shouldn’t think of these constructs as “stand-alone” goals; it is their mix and match that counts (Ford & Yore, 2012).
When you let the students in on the upcoming topics, you aren’t revealing your professional secrets. In fact, they are entitled to know what’s coming next and prepare for it, both mentally and psychologically. If they have access to the upcoming material, they can control their own learning: watch or read something repeatedly, form specific questions, and do their research – all the actions they need to take in order to be “ready to go.”
Perhaps you are thinking: how is this different from any homework assignment following the traditional class? Homework is used for practicing their knowledge of the topic you have delivered. Sometimes, for reasons inexplicable to us, students consider it as “optional.” Most of the time, it is related merely to assessment.
In the flipped classroom, on the contrary, students’ prior work is mandatory and strongly connected to the upcoming lesson. Either students do it, or they are wasting their time at school because aren’t prepared to participate in what their teacher and classmates are talking about. It also has an immediate, self-evident, impact on their grade.
💡 We don’t use the flipped classroom to penalize our students; we use it to pass on the torch of responsibility regarding their personal learning goals.
The time spent in the classroom will be way more meaningful for them if they have worked hard to construct a representation from scratch for the new material – on their own terms. Activating their unique prior knowledge, following their personal thinking pathways and focusing on the things most challenging for them will completely reform the way they see your class. It will give them ownership. These elements will comprise the base on which you can build your differentiated teaching during contact hours.
You can assign homework on the covered lesson, along with preparative activities for the upcoming one. Keep an eye for the reasonable extent of each lesson, so students have the capacity to study both the previous and the next one sufficiently. Their tasks can be closely related to the work done in the classroom: from the list of tiered activities, challenge them to uptake a task from the next difficulty level. This way, your differentiated instruction follows them home.
Make the lesson attractive, accessible and relevant to your students
What makes the flipped classroom an attainable educational strategy is our access to technology. In fact, the initial definition of the flipped classroom specifically referred to video lectures as the learning source for the upcoming lesson (Bergmann & Sams, 2012). However, just a few years is a “long time ago” in the context of evolving educational technology.
Back in the day, educational videos were the teachers’ recordings uploaded online; now you can find dozens of good captures that suit your specific IB topic or chapter. But now we have a variety of asynchronous tools that can work as preliminary sources – and far more interactive than videos, so you can draw your students’ attention.
💡 It is important to remember why we implement the flipped classroom in the first place: to create realistic conditions for differentiated instruction.
Resources can come in a diverse range of content difficulty and software formats. Interactive pdf files, simulations, and e-quizzes can begin to serve our goals. But, we also have to consider what suggests attractive hardware for our students – and meet them there. As far as I know, in most technologically developed countries smartphones have become an extension of their hands. With each student’s learning needs in mind, why don’t we suggest some additional ways they can use the technology that pushes them to create rather than consume?
During their preparation for the next class or when expanding on the tasks given as homework, they can discover related content through mobile apps, thus combining relevant software with accessible hardware. Differentiated learning is seamlessly facilitated if students find answers to their particular questions. They can be the first who pose them or not; what matters is to receive personalized answers from valid sources that contribute to their personalized quest of learning.
Here’s how to organize the pre- and post-class tasks with 100mentors:
Approaches to Teaching and Learning can lead us towards valuable tools for the enhancement of our instructional strategies. With differentiated teaching in mind, we can implement the flipped classroom technique to boost each student’s thinking skills, according to their specific learning needs. The right choice of edtech can make this plan come together more efficiently for us and for our students.
Abeysekera, L., & Dawson, P. (2015). Motivation and cognitive load in the flipped classroom: definition, rationale and a call for research. Higher Education Research and Development, 34(1), 1–14.
Bajrami, I. (2013). The Importance of Differentiation in Supporting Diverse Learners. Journal of Education and Practice, 4(22), 149–154.
Bergmann, J., & Sams, A. (2012). Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day. OR: International Society for Technology in Education.
Ford, C. L., & Yore, L. D. (2012). Toward Convergence of Critical Thinking, Metacognition, and Reflection: Illustrations from Natural and Social Sciences, Teacher Education, and Classroom Practice. In A. Zohar & Y. J. Dori (Eds.), Metacognition in Science Education: Trends in Current Research (pp. 251–271).
IBO. (2015). Approaches to teaching and learning. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from https://xmltwo.ibo.org/publications/DP/Group0/d_0_dpatl_gui_1502_1/static/dpatl/guide-thinking-skills.html