October 7th, 2008
One would have thought that teaching was the simplest task in the world. Everyone does it, and everyone has been at the receiving end of it. From the moment we emerge from the womb, parents are manipulating their voices, manoeuvering their heads, widening their eyes, and raising their eyebrows, all in the hope that their newborn creature will respond, and that these responses may, bit by bit, be shaped into responses that the parents, in turn, can understand. If a constant dose of parenting in the early years doesn’t clue us into what teaching is all about, surely the 18 years spent observing teachers of all persuasions and temperaments (I estimate you are exposed to as many as 70 teachers by the time you graduate with an undergraduate degree) would makes us all experts at the craft. But for all that teaching may appear to be natural, it is amazing how difficult and complex it really can be.
As a principal, I am blessed with the opportunity to teach 21 wonderful 16 year olds for 80 minutes, every four days. The course, Theory of Knowledge, is a dream for pondering souls such as me, but can be a nightmare for a good number of teenagers. Fully immersed in the reality of their own world – coping with their daily “360 review” of parental, teacher, and peer expectations – they might be forgiven for not sensing the urgency of such questions as “What is reality, and how do we know it?” But this year was to be different. For The York School had dedicated itself to differentiated instruction in all disciplines, and I, as the “principal” teacher, was confident that I would get on board, and reach all my students, kinesthetic learners and linguistic reasoners alike. If I had only known what lay ahead.
On the first day, I came with diagnostic tools in hand. I asked each student to rank order eight different methods of learning according to their preference and to indicate their favourite subject and favourite pastime. Needless to say, philosophy did not figure in either of the latter two categories. But that wasn’t the biggest problem. Of the eight learning approaches – teacher explanation, reading, discussion with peers, experience, visuals, asking questions, viewing experts on video, and relating content to their own lives – by far the most popular choice was “experience”. How would I have my students experience the most abstract of all possible subjects? Most alarming was the unpopularity of reading. Only three students included it in their top four methods of learning. A layer of sweat became noticeable between my palms and laptop computer.
If you think that by sending your child to a top-notch independent school you are ensured of a homogenous group of learners, you are dead wrong. If you thought by the fact that all teenagers seem to be able to listen to the same – sometimes dreary and monotonous – music, and wear the same basic outfit of tops and jeans, that they are all the same, you don’t know teenagers. And if you want to teach teenagers, you have to know teenagers, not their conforming patterns of behaviour, but their individualities that make conforming so difficult for so many of them. And if it is difficult for a teenager to conform to clothing and music, imagine how difficult it is to conform to Mr. Hamilton’s preferred way of teaching. After all, they have available to them umpteen different channels on their televisions, enough Youtube videos to fill any one of the earth’s oceans, games to keep their fingers tapping into eternity, and countless internet sites to suit every fancy imaginable.
My options were fairly clear. I could take comfort in the fact that they have to take and succeed in my course in order to obtain an IB diploma; I could stand at the gate and only let through those who hearken to my voice – OR – I could take a risk; I could try to take account of all the individuals in the classroom. It suddenly seemed like a cocktail party. Over in the corner are the people I know. The rest of the room is full of the people I don’t know. Do I make a beeline to the corner, or do I take a risk and try to communicate with everyone? Is this party about me, or is it about them?
It just so happens that risk taking is, like reflection, one of the ten attributes of the IB learner profile. And so, again, I was faced with the realization that what we ask of our students, must also be asked of ourselves as teachers. Like our students, we must do the uncomfortable thing, the thing that doesn’t come easily. We must teach in ways that we ourselves might not find helpful. We must dare to imagine what each of our students needs in order to learn, and we must find ways of meeting those needs, whether or not it suits our style. We must take an interest in everyone at the party. And do teachers want to do that? Surprisingly, yes.
On Monday last, our entire academic staff stopped what they were doing to sit down in small groups to discuss readings on the subject of differentiated instruction, in anticipation of a full-day professional development session to be held in January. I couldn’t be in all the small groups, but in the meeting I joined, it was abundantly clear that teachers were keen to develop strategies that could help them reach everyone in their classes. Despite the fact that differentiated instruction was going to mean more work, teachers were all for it. At first I was (pleasantly) surprised. And then I thought back to my experience of trying to prevent my dream course from becoming everyone’s nightmare, and why I and others got into teaching – like every parent, all we really want is that smile, a response that tells us that our passion has become their passion. The torch has been passed. A candle has been lit – for everyone.
I can’t claim to have created a raging firestorm in my Theory of Knowledge class, but a small incident in Friday’s class taught me one more thing about taking risks with differentiation. I had just subjected the class to Descartes’ first two Meditations, in which Descartes famously concludes that even were there a demon responsible for all our thoughts, perceptions and imaginings, it must surely be true that if I think, I must exist, or in Latin, “cogito ergo sum”. Picking up the notion of a demon being responsible for creating our reality, we viewed a segment of the “Matrix”, a movie in which reality is simulated for humans by computers. I could tell that despite the clarity of Descartes’ argument and the dramatic impact of Keanu Reeves emerging unclothed from a vat, the abstract notion that reality might not actually be as reality seemed, and that the relation between the thinker and reality might not be so straightforward, was being lost on some (most?) of my students. We needed an image to capture this notion.
And that is when I took a risk. Only having a rough sense as to how I might capture the idea in a drawing, I turned to the class and offered the white board marker to any willing soul. Tentatively, a single hand went up at the back of the class. With hesitation, Jeremy, my differentiation saviour, approached the front, took the marker from my hand, and began to draw. What resulted, a stick figure imposed upon a simple venn diagram, not only assisted the visual learners in the class, but to my surprise, ended up helping me. Although I knew that I liked to draw arrows and rough representations of concepts on the board, it later struck me how intertwined different ways of learning are. For Jeremy’s diagram led to a flurry of words and arrows and suddenly the topic seemed so much clearer – words and visuals combined.
In the end, my little taste of differentiated instruction taught me that not only is teaching not so simple, neither is learning. On the page and in the classroom, words, gestures, sounds, movements, and pictures can all work their magic, supporting one another in metaphor and symbol, leading to a multi-layered depth of understanding. And so, differentiation isn’t merely there to help visual learners learn on Mondays and linguistic learners learn on Wednesdays. Differentiated instruction offers the hope of building complex and enduring understandings for everyone, full of colour, sounding like poetry, and moving like a well-trained athlete.
And that kind of learning is well worth the risk.