Sunday, May 13, 2012

Book Review: Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design

I just finished another book. Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design, by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe, sets out to help educators with "connecting content and kids."

Right now I appreciate our district's emphasis on beginning with the end in mind when it comes to instructional practices and school systems. This book focuses on an approach to teaching and learning that utilizes what is called "backward design." It was a very timely read for me as I just participated in a focus group looking at the most important standards to pass on to teachers that are new to our district.

I'd like to share a few of my major take-aways from this book. First, learning happens within students, not to them. Treating education as though it is all about what the teacher brings to the environment is simply insufficient. There is not much to elaborate on here, just a fact that needs to be reiterated frequently lest we neglect the obvious.

Second, the authors discuss the "twin sins" of teaching. One is being activity-oriented without a clear purpose. The other is an obsession with coverage. These two "sins" run rampant in our school system. I confess that I have committed both at times. I seek forgiveness here and now. Fortunately, the authors also suggest a solution that can help me (and others) repent of these wicked ways. (Sorry, just having fun with the analogy.) They suggest a different mindset to instruction, one in which it is our goal not to cover the curriculum, but to "uncover" the content for our students. Think about it. We get to be the ones to unveil hidden knowledge and skills to students. Being armed with the new learning that we uncover and make available to them could completely change their lives. What a much more exciting endeavor than fulfilling a requirement to cover a certain amount of material within a set of dates.

Third, while there were many more valuable points made in the book, the biggest take-away of all is the overall approach. Regardless of the ages, ability levels, races, genders, or backgrounds of students, differentiation is much more possible with a consistent three-step approach.

1) Identify the desired results. This could apply to any lesson with kids in any subject area, but it could also apply to faculty meetings, parent conferences, and other activities. What is it we want to see?

2) Determine the acceptable evidence to show the desired results. This is the all-important question: How will we know when we get there? (One point to keep in mind is that it often takes multiple pieces of evidence to build a case. The authors suggest going for a photo album rather than a single snapshot.)

3) Plan instruction to help arrive at the desired results. How do we "get there"?

Education books like this one are not the kind that are going to necessarily fill one's heart with inspiration to change the world. However, the practical components of this book make it worthwhile. With the right practices in place, the change we want to see in education can begin to take shape. Ultimately, I like the book and consider it useful to professional development.

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