3 Techniques for Brain Based Differentiation

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By Bobbie Dunn

Brain-based research provides teachers with a lot of helpful do’s and don’ts to bring back to the classroom.  “We do one thing in one way and hope for the best, but for many of our students, it will not be enough” (Tomlinson & Kalbfleisch, 1998).  Even if we teach using the brain-based approach, there is still the problem of all of the different levels of learners in one classroom.  These complicated organs called brains all develop at different rates, and there are some students that are far more ready for complicated tasks than others.  With all of the different levels, we do need to make sure they’re all enriching their brain as mentioned above, but what can we do in our classrooms?  We differentiate!

“What we call differentiation is not a recipe for teaching…It is not what a teacher does when he or she has time.  It is a way of thinking about teaching and learning.  It is a philosophy” (Tomlinson, 2000).

Differentiation is one of those complex ideas that cannot just be copied off of the internet and pasted into a classroom.  Differentiation is something that teachers need to believe in.  All students are different, and therefore need to see school and learning differently.

Lori Tukey (2002), a sixth-grade teacher, gave a great analogy comparing golf to learning.  We all understand the concept, but our skill levels vary greatly.  Any golfer on the course has similar goals, but how those goals are met varies greatly.  No two golfers will have the same game.  Neither will any two learners have the same experience in a classroom. The following are some ways to help reach all students’ brains, regardless of their current level.

Prepare the Students

Differentiation can only begin if each student feels safe to learn in the classroom environment.  “When a child feels intimidated, rejected, or at risk, an overproduction of noradrenalin causes that child to focus attention on self-protection rather than on learning” (Tomlinson & Kalbfleish, 1998).  This again brings us back to the problems that stress causes the adolescent brain.  Another quote from Sabbagh (2007) states, “when adolescents are in situations with few competing demands, they do indeed behave like adults.”  We need to make sure, as teachers, that all baggage and other competing demands stay outside of the classroom and that all students feel like they are welcome to take chances and learn.

One suggestion from Eric Jensen (1998) was using a “dumping box” near the entrance where students can physically or just symbolically drop any problems off at the door so that all students can start on a clean slate.   Another way is to again maintain consistency with rules and expectations.  When students are confronted immediately after making a bad decision that effects the positive classroom environment, they will quickly learn how to act appropriately, and create an environment where the teens can feel more able to make adult-like decisions.  Once all students feel welcome and ready to learn, we then need to find ways to reach all students.

One way to start each unit off on the right track is to simply explain what you’re going to be teaching.  Tomlinson (2000) spoke of one teacher, “At the outset of each chapter, the teacher delineated for students the specific skills, concepts, and understandings that they needed to master for that segment of the curriculum.”  By explaining the requirements at the beginning, students’ brains are already processing what is to come and will be more prepared to take on the work.  They can also begin making connections right away, and won’t be surprised when the new ideas are brought up.  As mentioned in Part 1, it’s important to help students work on organizational skills, because many of their brains are not yet prepared to do it on their own.  By giving them visuals to look at and see what they need to know and do, students are better able to prepare themselves for what they need to accomplish.  Schedules on the board is something I have used in the past, and I know that it helps, not only the students, but also the teacher’s aids and myself.  They keep us on track and remind us what needs to be accomplished and when.

Give students ownership

Lori Tukey (2002) is a sixth-grade teacher that is seeing the rewards of differentiating her writing curriculum.  She starts by preparing helper sheets for her students.  These sheets document goal-setting, conferences, and record-keeping.  But before they are given to the class, she gives students the opportunity to critique the sheets and change them.  Inevitably, what they come back with is always “simple and user friendly,” she said.

Once she began the writing process, students had already been given the choice of how their helper sheets were going to look, and they also chose what their writing goals were going to be.  This definitely differentiated the writing process for each student.  There were similar requirements, but each student had a specific goal for improvement in mind.

“When students can actually see their own growth through many drafts, they are motivated to do even more.  Even the poor writers felt success and took pride in what they were able to produce” (Tukey, 2002, p. 64).  By differentiating her writing curriculum, students are seeing the relevance of each writing assignment, because they had created their own personal goals for each writing assignment.  This again correlates with the brain-based learning; she was including their emotions by giving them the chance to feel success in something that they found important and relevant.

Students are also getting constant feedback from her and other students.  They’re seeing the learning as meaningful, because it applied more specifically to their individual needs. Though I can’t see myself creating this miraculous writing process in my classroom this year, I think students can feel ownership if they set their own goals, and in the end, have a part of their grade which documents whether or not they achieved their goal.  I am also a strong believer of self- and peer-assessment, where students can see what needs to be improved and make those corrections before moving on and getting their final grade.

Create Open-Ended Activities

If we want all students to be able to understand, enjoy, and contribute to the group, we need to make our instruction open-ended, with many different answers to the question.  Hileman (2006) said, “Real-world problem solving allows the brain to do what the brain does best, make decisions that promote creative, meaningful and productive judgment.  Modeling and organizing projects and activities that require higher-level thinking should be your main instructional goal when developing thinking skills in students.”  By creating activities where all students get a question that is relevant to the curriculum, but are allowed to create their own answers, their brains will be enriched at the appropriate level.  As stated before, students don’t need to come up with a right answer for students’ brains to make connections; as long as they’re challenged, and continue to problem solve possible solutions, we are helping their brains learn so much more than by giving them a fill-in-the-blank worksheet.

One example of an open-ended activity is a Socratic Seminar.  To create a Socratic Seminar, students should be given a text and then have to create a viewpoint or answer to a question, using the text as proof of their answer.  Students should create their “answer” individually, and then as a group, get together in a circle.  Students will then all get a chance to explain their viewpoints.  Not all students will agree, and discussion will be created.  “The teacher’s open-ended questions in the Socratic seminar differentiate process, allowing each student to deliberate and respond at his or her own level using a variety of reasoning strategies” (Schneider, 2000).

The great thing about Socratic Seminars is that all students come to the circle at their level of learning, with their comprehension of the text on paper, but through discussion, ALL students will see different ways to look at the text, regardless of their learning level.  All students come from different backgrounds, and will be able to share different ideas with the group.  This gives students a chance to make many different connections at one time, and makes the information very meaningful.  Socratic seminars are a different way to teach, leaving the discussion up to the students, instead of having the teacher ask questions in front of the room and students raise their hand if they’re daring enough to share an answer.

Though I have never used this process yet in my classroom, I have been a part of some through St. Mary’s, and I’ve seen how well they can work.  All students are given the chance to speak, and some new ideas that I would never have thought of were brought to my attention.  This gives more students a chance to lead the conversation, since all need to take part, and provides a simple way to formatively assess the students’ comprehension of an idea.

Another idea that incorporates more creative thinking is the sketch to stretch.  Students fold their paper into four sections, and get two minutes to sketch a picture in each of the segments according to what they felt was most important in the portion of text given.  This allows students to use their creativity, but again, at the depth that they are comfortable with.  When the eight minutes are up, students join in a round-robin circle and share what they drew.  Schneider (2000) explains, “When participants share their representations of the chapter in a round-robin, the struggling and advanced learners witness each other’s process.”

This process gives the necessary repetition for some brains to understand the text, but it keeps it interesting, since no two students will create the exact same representation of the text.  Again, this is another great way to assess learning of ALL students, without them even feeling like they’re taking a test.

One last idea for differentiated activities would be a literature circle.  Schneider (2000) explains the four roles that she begins with.  The “literary luminary” finds quotable lines to discuss with the group.  The illustrator makes an illustration to show the important idea from the text.  The “vocabulary enricher” finds words that need to be defined or words that really stood out in the text.  The connector makes connections between the writing and real life, explaining how the text relates or could relate to a real-life situation.

Schneider’s way of differentiating this activity is to allow students to choose the role that they play.  Students that may not be as comfortable with the text may choose to illustrate or be the vocabulary enricher.  However, all roles can be given to students of any level; since it is a group activity, all students will be able to evaluate and reflect on all students’ work before sharing it with a group.  Schneider continued by saying that roles can be switched, or changed, if another may be more fitting.  Some other example roles could be that of a discussion director or summarizer, or any number of other roles that students or the teacher create.  Students each get a chance to be leader, since all of their roles are different.  Students are working together to accomplish the problem-solving instead of getting direct instruction from the teacher as well.

Summing It Up

Is it a challenge to enrich the brain of every student that we encounter throughout the year?  Of course!  One of the most reassuring and helpful quotes that I came across was one from Lori Tukey (2002), who summarized Wehrmann by saying that she, “…argues that the most important thing about bringing differentiation into the classroom is to take small steps instead of leaping into it at full speed.  A teacher should add differentiation gradually, so the students and teacher don’t become stressed and overwhelmed.”  I know that I’m the sort of person that, without the idea that differentiation should be a gradual process, would jump in head-first and attempt to completely recreate my entire curriculum.  However, we’re worthless to our students if we throw brain-based differentiation at our students all at once at the beginning, and then burn out before the year is half over.  By starting with one subject, or with one unit, we can use bits and pieces of the brain-based differentiation and find out what works for us and our students.

While brain-based differentiation may take time and effort, I can only see the process to be worthwhile to our students.  Eric Jensen (1998) sums it up best by saying, “Humans have survived for thousands of years by trying out new things, not by always getting the “right,” tried-and-true answer.  That’s not healthy for growing a smart, adaptive brain.”  Not only should this be an inspirational quote for our students, but it should be something for us to bring to our classrooms.  Brain-based teaching may not come smoothly at first, but it is our nature as humans to continue to try until we do find the best answer.

Some of us may already be using differentiation throughout the day, while others may be strictly by-the-book and have a lot of work to do.  But, like we need to differentiate with our students, the idea of differentiation will be different for all teachers.  Though there is no “right answer” to differentiation, it is obvious to me that brain-based differentiation should exist in all classrooms.  By understanding our students’ brains, and teaching in a way that continually challenges and energizes them, they will learn so much more than they could in a more traditional atmosphere.  As I will be challenging myself throughout the rest of my career to create a differentiated, brain-based classroom, I challenge you to take the leap and do what you can to stretch and enrich the brains of every student you encounter, and look at all attempts, as small as they may seem, as the next step to success.