Student buy-in is essential
Students are much more likely to be engaged and motivated if they believe in the philosophy embedded in the contract system. Therefore, the way in which contracts are introduced is critical. Students must come to believe in the value of differentiated learning. The contract system is designed to eliminate busywork and give additional time to students who need it. Most students understand and appreciate the contrast between this and the traditional once-size-fits all approach found in most classrooms. Many will embrace the goals of eliminating the bell curve of grades and providing every student with an appropriate level of challenge, particularly when they understand that they will have voice in deciding that level.
Student beliefs must be addressed
Built into the very fabric of contracts is the idea that all students can be successful through effective effort. Many students, however, believe that grades are a measure of intelligence, and that if they are failing, little can be done about it. This fixed mindset is a major impediment to effective effort, since it precludes learning from mistakes and shuts down the learning process prematurely.
Furthermore, students who struggle in school often feel shame or anger when they get their grades. They take failure personally and act out or withdraw. Poor test scores become a depressing reminder of that sense of failing and being a failure. Given this, it is hard for them to see grades as useful feedback or to believe that they can learn from their mistakes.
A discussion about learning in the comfort zone (as described in the last chapter) can help students understand the basics of differentiated learning. This presentation needs to be adapted to the students’ maturity and readiness to hear it, of course, but it will often lend itself to an interesting discussion. In particular, a nonjudgmental discussion about the different ways and rates at which students learn is an important step to begin redefining mistakes and seeing failure as feedback.
Training students in self-awareness
Differentiation in contracts may be designed around activities that are effective for different learning styles. Students can simply be given a free choice between visual, auditory, and tactile-kinesthetic activities, of course, but they will become much more effective in making those choices if they are aware of their dominant learning mode.
For the sake of your students as well as yourself, it is advisable to make the first contracts limited in scope. Since the very idea of differentiated activities may be alien to many students, starting with a simple choice is a good first step. A minicontract can offer a branching of student work into two activities. This might be used for a short, in-class follow-up to a homework assignment where some students have mastered a new skill and some haven’t.
As your students (and you) become more comfortable with the idea of individualizing the learning process, the contracts can grow in complexity and scope, eventually leading to the use of unit contracts, described in full in the next chapter.
Preparing students for making effective choices
Some students may find it shocking that they are expected to play an active role in the learning process. On a basic level, many students, even successful ones, are often unprepared to make good choices. They may never have had the experience of making an independent decision about learning. Even if they have, they may be driven by inappropriate or counterproductive motivations. “Good” students are often preoccupied with what they need to do to get a good grade. In focussing on what the teacher is expecting of them, they may not even be conscious of what they need to do to learn effectively. They may also choose to do busywork that they can complete easily and quickly so as to save time for other work they have to do for other classes. “Bad” students, on the other hand, may choose work that is not challenging enough so that they can avoid being embarrassed by failure of any kind.
Making responsible choices is a skill many students will need to learn by trial and error. They may not be particularly good at it at first, and will need guidance and extensive feedback from you. Therefore, it is essential for you to have patience, while remaining firm in your commitment to differentiated learning.
Teaching students the difference between freedom and license
Since most students’ experiences in school are highly controlled by their teachers, they are likely to confuse not being told what to do with not needing to do anything at all. The idea that they would choose to work when they “don’t have to” will be a novel experience for many. The ability of students to act responsibly as they learn is the very heart of being self-directed; the importance of their understanding that fact cannot be overstated.
Teaching students self-evaluation
Although it isn’t necessary to include self-evaluation in the first few contracts, ultimately students should be given this responsibility. Whenever they first begin to evaluate their own work, they must be given support and feedback so that they can internalize the ability to discern excellent work and strive for it.
It is important to remember that students may have no experience in actually determining for themselves how well they are doing. Having them learn this important skill takes patience and persistence.