“Defense wins games; rebounds wins championships.”
As a sports fan and a former basketball coach I’ve seen this to be a truism. Take the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. Michael Jordanwas the leader who could will a victory from games that should have been lost. While an offensive force, he and Scottie Pippenlead a team defense that when unleashed left opposing teams in tatters. Both would consistently win Defensive honors and 3 consecutive championships from 1991 to 1993. Their second 3-peat championships from 1996 to 1998, was again driven by defensive wizardry as Dennis Rodman joined Jordan and Pippen to become a three-headed monster. Rodman dominated the boards for rebounds.
Phil Jackson, coach of the Bulls, is the other critical factor to the Bulls’ Championship success, but also for 3 championships under him by the Los Angeles Lakers. Winning and losing is a game of adjustments. Phil Jackson is a master at making adjustments throughout a game that helps his teams win.
In classrooms, teachers make adjustments every day in each lesson. Each course and/or content lesson is like a game where effective teachers make adjustments based on the continuous flow of observational data from students’ progress and/or struggles. A well planned unit includes lessons that prepares for students who succeed to easily and for those who will struggle. Anticipating how students will respond, as with athletic coaching, enables the teachers to plan scaffold supports and enrichment extensions so that all students are stretched. But as with any plan, once implemented, things can and will go awry.
Successful teams make adjustments to the game plan based on the situation. Often quoted in football by quarterbacks and receivers regarding success is: “We take what the defense gives us.” Rarely does a team do well when the coach refuses to change a plan that’s not working, or makes adjustments on poor or inaccurate data. The same is true with instruction and learning in the classroom. If students fail to meet the lesson objectives adjustments need to be made so that the path is made clear for learner success.
Differentiated Instruction (DI) is a critical strategic approach to successful adjustments towards student achievement. There are two phases to include if all students have a chance to stretch and grow.
Phase One: Intentional Differentiation
Intentional differentiation happens during unit and lesson planning (So All Can Learn: A practical guide to Differentiation by John McCarthy, EdS). It’s the preparation before game time of launching the lesson. One guaranteed prediction for education is that students enter a learning at different levels of understanding and skills. A plan targeted to a specific group, typically the lower middle, fails to meet the needs of those who struggle and students who already know the content. Devising such a plan is the first step. Then…
- Create additional layers, or paths, that attend to the other students, from scaffolds to enrichment.
- Include students on collaborative teams and individualized processing activities. Learners need chances to digest information and concepts.
- Use learning preferences data to help shape activities. Collect data from students through inventories. At a minimum, using learning styles provides variety in learning activities, which can maintain attention; and at best, students make stronger connections because they resonate with the activity processes.
—Robert Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Multiple Intelligences
—Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences
- Plan assessment checkpoints to track student progress. Often this occurs at the end of each lesson. It’s also good to have 2-3 processing activities during the lesson for informal check-ins. Students could be summarizing ideas in writing or in small groups, sample the class with questions to see how they are responding, or use a learning signal, such as thumbs up (I understand), thumbs to the side (I think I understand enough to continue), and thumbs down (Stop! I don’t get it. I’m lost.). Additional resources are available here.
Intentional differentiation take planning time. Yet it reduces the surprises that can derail a lesson because you’ve anticipated much of what might and could go awry. It makes informal DI feel less chaotic and more targeted to students’ needs.
Phase Two: Intuitive Differentiation
Intuitive differentiation is something that most teachers are very experienced at doing. Remember, adjustments are always going to happen regardless of how well you plan. When a good plan is prepared, those changes on the fly will be more seamless because whatever could go wrong, you’ve already anticipated during the formal planning process. The key to intuitive differentiation is to use the assessment check points (see 4th bullet in Intentional Differentiation) to determine adjustments for the whole class or individuals. When collaborative teams are working independently, that’s a great time to provide coaching or customized support to one or more students sharing common needs. Some adjustments may get planned for the next lesson. In that instance, help students to finish the current lesson with a feeling that support will arrive just in time at the next meeting or through communications.
A critical key to successful coaching is to have plan that has multiple layers. Anticipating how a lesson might go well or fall apart leads to layers of support that are ready to implement if or when needed (Intentional Differentiation). No one feels good about being caught flat footed when something unplanned happens. With a strong plan, the real-time adjustments will be mostly anticipated, which leads to strong responses and greater confidence by the students (Informal DI). When something unpredicted happens, well, we remember to take a deep breath, draw from our experience and do the best that we can for the student(s). Sometimes the solution can still be found inside the thoughtful formal plan.
In the end, all students learn. That is the true victory.