This past week began with the last of our mid year department reviews and ended with a School Growth Meeting. From start to finish, the topic of discussion has been constant: what do our students need from us in order to be successful learners? The article I am passing on, Carole Ann Tomlinson’s, “The Goals of Differentiation,” adds to this conversation.
Tomlinson asserts that differentiated instruction enables teachers to go beyond the question, “How can I make sure a student masters a body of information?” asking instead, “How can I help create a real learner?” Differentiation, she posits, creates ideal conditions to promote four elements that help students take charge of their own learning: trust, fit, voice, and awareness.
How do we “create real learners?” In answering this question, what do we discover as we collectively assess our own teaching practices? Currently, our practices are addressing students’ needs which are not being met outside of the school day. For example, we know that our students do not read enough so we offer 20 minutes of silent reading everyday. We know that 60% of our students regularly leave school without a knapsack so we offer Homework Clubs and Friday School (i.e. Science Department) for any student who has not mastered the prescribed learning outcomes of the week. We offer Evening School remedial sessions for students failing mandatory provincially examinable courses and we run a Special Instruction Week where exams are used as formative assessments. In addressing the need for rigour, in placing importance on skill acquisition through homework and content review, in establishing a tone that is not punitive but founded in the belief that every child can succeed, our current practices help foster within students our own understanding of the intrinsic merit of education: the understanding that for “real learners” knowledge is power.
Our students, as many of you have said, do need to work harder. The issue, however, as stated by both teachers and students over this past week, is that they and we need more time: more time for students to disseminate new material and share their findings with their peers; more time for us to engage in continuous professional learning that increases, expands and improves quality teaching; more time for collaborative interaction and self reflection to ensure students’ success. How then do we align our existent structures within the school to allow us to find this time to share our thoughts and ideas and in so doing create a synergy that fosters introspection while concomitantly ensuring external results? The answer is neither immediate nor simple but is one predicated on the merit and value of a focused and sustained dialogue around learning (the sharing of stories) between all of us.
“Real learners” value knowledge. This value is not solely produced by hard work but is also produced by the sharing of stories. Students telling their stories of attending Homework Club not as a punishment but as an act of concern and care from a teacher; students telling stories about how extra time is being granted to them, after school, because we as professionals know that the assignment won’t be done anywhere else; students telling stories that have as their basis the theme of supportive, academic rigour.
In keeping our professional lens focused upon our own teaching practices and in students understanding and appreciating the “JO experience,” these stories, in the end, create a new possibility beyond the mastery of content: the ability of all students to take charge of their own lives as real learners.