I pause for a moment before launching into the next idea. It’s time to introduce the concept of differentiated learning, one of the central structural ideas my students need to absorb. This is a pivotal moment.
“Over the years, I have come to realize that making learning the center of what we do in this classroom means rethinking almost everything that I do as a teacher and that you do as students.
“Consider for a moment the notion that everyone in this room comes into the class with different histories, different motivations, different strengths and weaknesses, different ways of learning. Some of you are good at math, some struggle with it. Some can write well or are good at hands-on activities; others, not. It seems to me that everyone needs something different to be successful academically. It’s not that one person’s way is better or worse than another; it’s just the way it is. We’re all different.
“Years ago, my daughter was a student here, and one night she complained to me about her math homework. She said, ‘I learned about these problems in class today. I already know how to do them, but I have to do 27 problems that are a complete waste of my time.’ It was a legitimate complaint, and I began thinking about the fact that every student has to do the same homework, whether they need it or not. I realized that doing busywork is a serious problem, and I began struggling with how to make homework useful for everyone.”
“But even if the homework is just right for some people, it will be boring busywork for others.” Alexis sounds like she knows what she’s talking about.
“I agree. If every student has to do the same work at the same time, some will be bored and others will not get enough practice. So if we want to maximize learning, we can’t all do the same thing at the same time. We need to be able to spread out and have every one of you doing exactly what you need to be successful. And that means we shouldn’t always have to do the same homework.
“But if each of you follows a different path to be successful, who will decide what you are going to do? If I make those decisions, I have to keep doing intrusive things to check whether you need more practice, and, no matter what, I’ll never know what you need nearly as well as you do. And if you are all doing different things, the bookkeeping I would have to do to oversee your individual learning process is a nightmare. Not to mention, it’s still me telling you what to do. For a lot of students, being told what to do all day long, one teacher after another, is one of the worst aspects of school, and it drains motivation to learn.”
Several students nod at this. It’s an aspect of school that has a large psychological effect on many students, but rarely gets discussed.
“If, on the other hand, you get to decide how to learn new material, you can do a much better job of it than I can. You’ll need a little training, but it can definitely be done. Do you remember our discussion of working assumptions? One of them was about this very issue:
Since every person learns in a unique way, students should have a lot of choice in how they learn. Since every person has different needs and motivation, we shouldn’t always do the same thing at the same time.
“Only you really know how well you understand what’s going on in your mind; only you can steer yourself through the learning process effectively. But more importantly, learning how to make good decisions is excellent training for how to take care of business in your own life.
“Imagine if you could actually choose to only do work that is useful to you in this class. Let’s say we are learning a new problem-solving skill, and, as always, some people learn how to do it faster than others. After an introduction, you’re still not confident you know how to do it, so you need to practice some more. So you choose to take home some work that lets you do just that.
“But if you’ve already mastered this skill, continuing to practice will be busywork. So instead, you should be able to move on and choose to do something different, possibly something more challenging that will let you stretch yourself and learn as much as possible. Every person will steer her own learning process based on what she needs.
“I never want you to do busywork in this class. Ever.” There is a strong reaction; several students say “Yes!” with considerable enthusiasm. Others are smiling and nodding. There is a sense of liberation in the air; I’m guessing they’ve never heard a teacher say such a thing. “Busywork doesn’t help you learn anything, and, like everyone else, you naturally resent having to do it. In this class, if you are doing busywork, either you are making bad choices or I haven’t set up your options well enough. In that case, I expect you to let me know so that I can change what we are doing to better suit your learning. That is my job.
“We are here to learn. Anything that advances learning is good. Anything that gets in the way, like doing busywork, we need to get rid of.”
After a moment, while everyone is digesting these ideas, Jason speaks up. “But this changes everything.”