August 29, 2014 by

Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom: An Interview with Marcia B. Imbeau

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By Erin Klein

There has been a great deal of conversation focused on personalized learning and differentiated instruction within the classroom. The discussion seems to have become more popular as class sizes increase and more students are diagnosed with learning differences. One resource that offers insight into this topic is Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Marcia B. Imbeau. I recently had the opportunity to interview Imbeau about differentiation in today’s classroom environments.

Marcia B. Imbeau TipIs the need for differentiation more imperative now than it has been in years past? Why?

I believe the need for differentiation is more imperative in some ways than in years past because of the increase in the number of students who come to school “all over the map” in terms of their needs, interests, and learning preferences. We have many more students in U.S. classrooms today who live in poverty, do not speak the language of the classroom, and may have had limited opportunities compared to more advantaged peers. But these students have an enormous potential to thrive under effective teachers who know how to respond to their varying learning needs.

However, if you were interviewing a teacher from years past who taught in a one-room schoolhouse, she might tell you that having such a mixture of individuals was the norm in her classroom even if she didn’t have some of the same issues we face today.

When teachers begin to customize and tailor the curriculum to meet individual learner’s needs, how does that affect the fidelity of the program being used for instruction?

Good question. It may be important to first draw a few distinctions between curriculum and instruction in order to answer your question completely. Curriculum is what we teach and should be based on clear learning goals that center around what we want students to know, understand, and be able to do (we call this KUDs for short), making sure we have understanding as the focus. On the other hand, instruction is how we teach the curriculum so that students learn as much as they can, as quickly as they can. Obviously, the ways in which effective teachers connect the curriculum to students’ readiness, interests, and learning needs is typically based on good assessment data and astute observations. Effective teachers who routinely differentiate instruction note who is with them and who is not and respond accordingly using a variety of instructional strategies they have in their repertoire. They are also willing to create a new strategy to address a new student need that crops up. In other words, they are proactive in their approach.

As for remaining faithful to the program being used for instruction, the short answer is that it depends on the program. When we are conducting a professional development session at an ASCD conference, teachers often share with us that their school uses a certain program and it is quite scripted. They then ask us how they should differentiate instruction for their students. I think it would be quite challenging to remain faithful to such a program and also differentiate instruction. On the other hand, a balanced literacy program already has differentiation built into it so retaining fidelity to that kind of program would be relatively easy.

I appreciate your comparison of a classroom to a dramatic scene. You begin to outline three elements that teachers must focus on to make learning more compelling: getting to know their students, building a community, and designing the physical environment. Is there one element you deem more important or of greater value?

I am not sure that I think one is more important than another—rather, I think they feed into and flow from one another. Initially, you try to connect with and get to know your students individually. It is only after you establish individual connections that you can begin to build a community within your classroom. But by helping those students, you grow to know better and better throughout a school year become a team is also critical. Additionally, how a classroom teacher involves her students in her organization of the classroom space can also send a very powerful message to those students. I was in a 1st grade classroom yesterday(the students were not there yet) and this teacher had worked hard to make her classroom attractive and inviting. One element that struck me while I visited was that the students’ names were everywhere. I have to imagine that from students’ perspective, this would indicate that the teacher wants them here and is glad they are in her classroom. A savvy teacher starts off the year this way—arranging the classroom to fit her students, not the other way around.

You offer several examples of building community within a school. What advice you would give to educators looking to strengthen the sense community in their schools?

Try to build in lots of opportunities for students to get to know one another—it would be difficult for students to build a community with a group of strangers. Help them learn about each other so they can celebrate each other’s successes and offer help to peers in respectful ways. There should be some non-negotiable rules that student should help decide on for their community—it is much more difficult for them to tear down something they helped to build. So, seek student input and don’t be afraid to ask students what they think would make the classroom work better for everyone. Be sure to listen to their suggestions—I absolutely love the ingenious ideas my students come up with! They are amazingly thoughtful and help to strengthen our classroom community.

In the section on designing the physical environment, you offer several sound suggestions for teachers to consider when constructing their space. What role does technology play in today’s classroom design?

That is a great question, and I think technology can play a great role in a setting up a differentiated classroom. You have to first make sure that the classroom is set up so that students can receive the maximum benefits from the technology available. You need to be sure that desks or other furniture do not block students’ view of instructions or other content on the board. You might also designate areas for computer or iPad carts or other technology when arranging your classroom, since electrical outlets or other such factors may be necessary to consider. Technology can also be used to provide engaging practice or enrichment that students might need, so it might be helpful to set up a center in a specific part of the classroom for students to attend For classrooms where everyone has their own tablet, it may also be necessary to think about how furniture will be managed to be comfortable and functional and also how you would want to set up conversations between teacher and student and student and student that are both verbal and written.

A sincere thank you to Marcia for this interview and her thoughtful responses. For more from Marcia, check out her latest ASCD Arias with Carol Ann Tomlinson, A Differentiated Approach To The Common Core: How Do I Help A Broad Range Of Learners Succeed With Challenging Curriculum?.