Observations on Science Larry

Larry Malone, Co-Director of FOSS, Lawrence Hall of Science
March 30, 2015 | Observations by Larry

Differentiation is a hot topic in education these days, and with good reason—our classrooms are scenes of unprecedented diversity. Differentiation has evolved as a response to the complexity of bringing all students in our exceptionally diverse classrooms to an equitable understanding of the subject matter. Let's see now...divergent student body—convergent learning outcomes. So the obvious question for FOSS, "How do we differentiate in science?"

To get started we first need to parse "differentiation." Differentiation has two main subdivisions: differentiated instruction and differentiated learning. Differentiated instruction is teacher work; differentiated learning is student work. Each needs a bit of examination.

Underlying both divisions of differentiation are unifying principles and assumptions.

First and most important is the undeniable fact that students come to school with a vast array of differences in: academic history (prior knowledge, school readiness, culture); preparation to learn (resources, attendance, physical and psychological disposition); language proficiency; and economic burden. Students who come to school advantaged with substantial academic history, adequately prepared to learn with English language proficiency, and supportive cultural/economic environments place very different demands on educational systems than students coming to schools with disadvantages in one or more of these areas.

Second, learning is a complex social/cognitive process involving the integration of multiple sources of information. Individual students have particular strong and weak avenues for information acquisition and processing. This idea is elaborated in the theoretical work of Howard Gardner: Multiple Intelligences1. He identifies several intellectual arenas: Linguistic, Logical-mathematical, Musical, Bodily-kinesthetic, Visual-spatial, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and Naturalist. It is a compelling theory, suggesting that every one of us has each of these intelligences to varying degrees. Not infrequently, Dr. Gardner's work has been misinterpreted as a set of learning styles, suggesting inappropriately that each student has a modality in which he or she is most adept at learning. Gardner is very clear in his explanation as he refutes this notion of learning styles (input filters) being equivalent to his perceived intelligences. The several intelligences are facilities for processing acquired information in the brain, not the avenues through which information is conveyed into the brain. What Dr. Gardner suggests is that every student has his or her most-effective machinery for processing information (learning). Some have keen linguistic computers in their heads, others powerful number/logic processors, others a particular facility for making sense of interpersonal interactions, and so on.

Adding more dimension to the differentiated learning side of the issue is the apparent individual predispositions for the learning of science, which manifest themselves in ways that are exceptionally difficult to both qualify and quantify. But we all know some students who exhibit irrepressible motivation to learn, or who seethe with enthusiasm for active learning and engagement with scientific phenomena, or who are outstandingly reliable and responsible as both individual and team learners.

If these observations are valid, it would seem logical that an important dimension of enacting differentiated instruction would be to determine the kind of processing for which each student is predisposed. This is a tremendous expectation to place on an educational system, in particular on classroom teachers. To have this depth of knowledge of individual students is starting to sound and feel more like parenting than teaching.

And so it is; idealized teachers have a deep personal knowledge of their students. What is the solution to this deep conundrum? One affirmative action is described in the "FOSS Assessment Corner" article in this issue written by Dr. Kathy Long: engage in a systematic program of formative assessment, which helps both students and teachers see and understand the learning as it progresses. The FOSS assessment system for instance, exposes the arc of each individual student's learning, which puts the teacher in position to respond with precision to the specific needs of each student. Voilà! Differentiation!

Now, what exactly should be done in response to this expert knowledge? That, my friend, is the work of teachers. When a teacher has intimate understanding of a student's mind and knowledge, she can move his learning forward with confidence and humanity, contoured and guided by experience, common sense, recognized effective practice, and available resources.

Is the answer a leveled reader that purports to provide access to the science content by lowering the technical and intellectual challenge of text material? I don't think so. Nor do forward thinkers in the area of reading competence. (See also Diana Vélez's article on page 1 of this newsletter.) Contemporary strategies for addressing the challenges imposed by text material involves applying close reading techniques that allow delayed readers to engage with complex ideas in text using systematic analytic procedures to extract information from words, images, and graphic/spatial organization. Various techniques for engaging students in small and large group productive talk draw on students' innate facility to engage in meaningful social conversation focused on the target subject matter.

So what is the summary takeaway from all this chatter? Slow down and embrace your classroom as a family. Abandon the externally imposed urgency to cover unmanageable numbers of topics. Examine interesting phenomena together in depth. together about the shared experiences. Forge each experience into new ideas about the structure, activities, and implications for the phenomenon and link them to everyday authentic experiences. Involve every student in the process of transforming observations into knowledge. Encourage all students to communicate their knowledge in their most intuitive and comfortable medium—writing, talking, drawing, movement, music, etc. Provide time for students to critique and discuss each other's communications of learning. Revise; re-communicate; help one another to improve. Involve everyone in the process of differentiation.

1 This article references the 1993 edition of Howard Gardner's book, Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons.