Providing students open-ended activities and the ability to choose their own strategies will help teachers achieve differentiation, according to leading educatorRob Vingerhoets.
Mastering differentiation in the classroom and providing all students an entry point can be difficult, but it certainly isn’t impossible.
For Rob, a highly regarded numeracy consultant and author, it’s about keeping tasks open and providing more choice and flexibility with their learning.
He joined literacy expert Sharon Callen on Episode 53 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy to discuss how teachers can best support the varied needs of students.
Firstly, instead of grouping students based on their skill level and providing different tasks, Rob suggested using more open-ended problems and activities which cater for all children in the classroom. This is particularly effective for teachers entering a new classroom where individual skill levels aren’t yet known.
“A significant part of it is to provide your kids with open-ended tasks which allow them to come in at their own entry point. And that is so much better than you preparing three different activities for three different groups,” Rob said.
“Sometimes I’ll walk into a classroom I’ve never seen before, but I know there’s going to be a minimum four years spread, no matter what class I’m working in anywhere in Australia.
“So knowing that, every time I walk into a room and don’t know each individual, I need an open-ended task or I need a task that’s going to engage the kids sufficiently, so I can engage with them and just say, ‘ok you’ve got your head right around this, how about you try this challenge?’ Or ‘ok, I see you’re struggling a bit with this, let’s have a look at this and I can give you a hand with these bits’.”
The same concept also applies with literacy strategies. Students shouldn’t be separated and assigned a particular strategy, but rather collectively presented and opened up to the same range of processes.
“With our literacy strategies that we use, whether that’s word solving strategies or comprehension strategies, we’ll bring these to all of our students and not say this group is ready for these and this group isn’t yet,” Sharon said.
The power of choice and independence is just as important, according to Rob. Once students understand the range of strategies at hand, they should be allowed to select which process works best for them to solve an open-ended problem, rather than being restricted to one strategy that doesn’t suit their learning needs.
“Once you go through that range you can offer choice. Choice implies responsibility and it implies independence, and with that comes accountability, and that’s a lovely package to be getting,” Rob said.
“If it’s an open-ended task, it needs the problem-solving strategies to go with it …So I love this ability or this notion that you choose. ‘I’m not picking a strategy for you, you tell me which one you want to do’ … They’ve been given responsibility, you’re in charge, you choose and use it, and off you go,” Rob said.
Rob added that this flexibility is something teachers should be offering from early on.
“I start that in reception. I don’t start them on one strategy, I start them on four or five because I want them to choose. To only give you one strategy to pick from, because I’m that sort of controlling teacher and think you can’t handle more than one or two choices, is ridiculous,” he explained.
“The receptions, four, five and six year olds, will choose and they’ll choose well. And when they don’t, it’s not a catastrophe, they’ll just pick another one. We’ll go that’s not working for you, or do you want me to help you with one, and then you get them going again.”
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