Sunday, May 1, 2016

Three Sides of a Three-Sided Coin: Differentiation (Part 1)

This is the first guest post in a series on Response to Intervention (RTI) by Dr. Chris Weber.

Differentiation, special education, and response to intervention (RTI) are interrelated and interdependent; or, they should be. In my opinion and experience, schools can more successfully implement these critical, research-based initiatives. They represent principles and practices essential to meeting all students’ needs and to ensure that students graduate future-ready. Comprehensive approaches to differentiation, special education, and RTI are more necessary than ever if schools will reach the goal of high levels of learning for all students. 

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Schools should strategically and purposefully blend differentiation, special education, and RTI within Systems of Supports for rigorous learning that optimizes the complex and critical processes under a singularly designed set of structures. This first in a series of three posts describes how schools and educators must leverage differentiation within a System of Supports:

A Comprehensive Approach to Differentiation within an RTI-Inspired System of Supports for Rigorous Learning

Effective core supports are built on providing students what they need; educators call this differentiation. Our increased successes in differentiating teaching and learning directly improve student engagement and motivation. What follows are the elements of differentiated supports for each and every student:
  • Survey students to learn about their interests, passions, and drives; incorporate this information in small and large ways throughout the school year.
  • Screen to ensure we have identified students at high risk of experiencing failure in the absence of a scaffolded set of Core Supports and immediate, intensive, and targeted Specialized Supports. These students will need the very best in terms of scaffolded and differentiated supports to achieve success within the core.
  • Build relationships with students early and often, so that the learning environment is positive and productive and so that a growth mindset prevails.
In order to ensure that these differentiated supports are in place it is important to plan for:
  • What – specifically and fundamentally – students will learn.
  • A prioritized scope of a sequence of concepts and skills, based on state and local priorities and student needs.
  • How students will access information and content?
  • How to differentiate during whole group instruction?
  • How to differentiate during small group instruction?
  • How students will interact with the content? 
  • With whom students will learn?
  • Tasks that provide students with choice and opportunities to exercise agency.
  • When students will learn with an emphasis on:
    1. Where students will learn?
    2. How students will show us what they know and what they can do?
    3. The materials we will need to provide differentiated supports.
    4. Pedagogies that that will scaffold students to success, such as those based on a gradual release of responsibility model. This does not mean a teacher-only lecture, but a sound lesson design that includes rich student discourse and interaction supported by a teacher’s metacognitive modeling. There is a reason that direct instruction has twice the effect size of inquiry-based approaches (although we are huge fans of inquiry too…the genius of AND)
    5. Questioning techniques that meet students at the leading edge of their zones of proximal development and engage them in productive struggle. 
    6. Practices and strategies based on interests, modalities, styles – not because any are superior or because students necessarily possess a predisposition to learn best from one more than another, but because multiple approaches contribute to a greater likelihood that learning will occur; because interacting with concepts from multiple perspectives and directions strengthens understanding. 
    7. Assessments that ensure that we can accurately measure what students know in relation to the very first element for what is planned: “What – specifically and fundamentally – students will learn.”
Whether differentiation serves as the umbrella under which RTI and Collaborative Systems of Support work or Collaborative Systems of Support and RTI assist schools in organizing and systematizing differentiated practices is unimportant. Both sets of principles must be present.

In the second post in the series, I will describe the elements of early intervention (pre-referral services) within a System of Supports.

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