In January, I quit my membership to the gym after 7 years. It was a tough decision, because just having that membership made me feel fit, even if I only went once a week. Over the past 7 years I've gone through Yoga phases, Pilates phases, a Zumba phase, Pure Barre, Spinning, or whatever the latest craze might be. Some of those stuck with me, others have been fleeting. But they almost all have one thing in common, which is amazing differentiated instruction.
I'll take Yoga as an example of an exercise that does a great job differentiating instruction for all levels. In one class, there could be students from 18 to 80. Some may have injuries that prevent them from certain moves. Some students are more flexible than others, and some are stronger than others. Some students may have been practicing for one year and others may have been practicing for ten. An instructor has to make sure that every single one of these people is both challenging themselves, but not pushing themselves so far that they could hurt themselves. In education we call this scaffolding. All students, all the time, deserve to be appropriately challenged.
So how do they do it? First, they have tools that help people to reach their goals. In yoga, it is sometimes a block or a strap. Someone that can't touch the floor with their fingertips may have the support they need with a block and be able to practice the same pose as the rest of the class. I am not very flexible, so I often use a strap to help me stretch by wrapping it around my foot, if my hands can't reach. It's just the little bit of help I need to be successful. In addition to providing supports, the teachers are often frequently providing extensions. These extensions might mean releasing your hands from the floor or the block and using your core for support. Another extension used often in yoga are balance poses such as the crow pose that are very challenging. The instructor will say, if you are comfortable and it is part of your practice, please continue into (Balance Pose). Everyone else stays where they are and they are still challenged.
I mentioned that I quit the gym recently, and that was to try an online fitness service called The Daily Burn. Now the workouts are completely on my own time and at my own pace. In each workout program, there is a modifier, who is modeling a beginner version of the workout. There is also someone who is extending the workout and making it more challenging. Through the whole workout you can choose which one works for you, right that moment.
So how does all this translate to education? In the classroom it might look like flexible small groups based on mastery. The groups are not homogenous or heterogenous, but rather group the students at their ability on different skills and give students the supports or extensions that they need to be challenged and experience success. Students are all different, all the time. While I might need a block for one pose, I can do the extension on another. During a workout video, I might follow the modifier sometimes and then challenge myself during the times when I feel like it's too easy. Wouldn't it be amazing if students could learn like this? Unfortunately in education we have a tendency to sort students out into permanent groups with labels and programs, but we should approach education with the idea that every student has strengths, and every student has areas of growth. Our job is to make the most of the strengths and to support the weaknesses.
This carries up to the level of the teacher as well. Like the students, not all teachers need the same level of support. But we insist on sitting teachers down and feeding them information. Training and professional development are rarely differentiated for teachers, but we expect teachers to differentiate for their students without modeling it for them.
The next time you're in a workout class or watching a video of one, check out what the instructors are doing to make sure that all students are successful. Provide choices. See all students as needing both advancement and support at different times. Use tools that help students reach their goals. Make sure all students are challenged enough to love learning no matter where they are.
Education careers are tough. These entries are dedicated to making the lives of educators easier and empowering those who have chosen this path to reach their potential in work and life.