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Differentiation by Process: The Jigsaw

Thanks for coming back for day two. This week we will be posting a series of blogs from NCCAT Lead Fellow Dr. Deb Teitelbaum on Differentiated Instruction. Yesterday, we talked about what Differentiated instruction is and today we go further.

Previously, on the NCCAT blog, we had established that differentiated instruction (DI) had to be preceded by assessment and that it could be accomplished in at least three ways: content, process, and product. We also learned the term “crap ton.” See yesterday’s post for further edification on that subject.

As promised, today we’ll take on the second type of DI, differentiating by process. To differentiate by process, you first have to ask yourself, “What is the goal toward which I’m pushing my students?” This might be answered quite simply by looking at the upper right hand corner of your white board and seeing the day’s learning objective, or it may be a broader, essential question (another of those oft-used, seldom-understood edu-terms that I’ll take on in another post).

Let’s keep it simple, though, and say that your learning goal is that the students can explain both orally and in writing the functions of the organelles in a cell. It is only important that the students arrive at this goal you have set; how they get there is immaterial.

That is where differentiating by process comes in.

Sample Option 1: Jigsaw

This is an excellent way to cover a lot of written material fairly quickly with a failsafe for ensuring accurate comprehension. Let’s say organelles are covered in Chapter 5 of the science textbook, which is 20 pages long. You can be fairly certain that if you assign Chapter 5 for homework, a good portion of your class will not finish (another portion will not begin), and a portion of those who do the reading will fail to understand it.

If you do the reading in class, you will lose an hour of instructional time that might be better spent discussing why anyone should care what each organelle does (At some point we’ll get around to addressing the So-What? factor of lesson planning). Additionally, you will be doing all the work. A good rule of thumb is that whoever is talking the most is also learning the most. If you want your students to learn, you have to make them work harder than you, which reminds me of another good title you may want to add to your professional library, Never Work Harder than your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching by Robyn R. Jackson.

But I digress.

Step 1: Break up Chapter 5 into four sections and assign them appropriately. This is the trickiest step. You want to give your strongest readers the most challenging and/or longest portions, but you don’t want to be obvious about it. Allow graphics and other text features to help you. If pp. 78-84 have 2 ½ pages of graphics, you can assign them to your lower-achieving students, and your class will see only that this group has to read six pages. No one is stuck with the nail-and-hammer stigma I noted in yesterday’s post.

Step 2: Explain that each individual will be responsible for reading and reporting out on the assigned portion of the chapter. You may be tempted to threaten them with the entire chapter if anyone fails to do his/her part. You know your kids better than I, but I’d refrain from this until and unless it becomes necessary.

Step 3: Gather students who read the same portion together and allow them to debrief each other on what they believe the essential information from this reading was. This step is crucial. It is your opportunity to discover and correct your students’ misunderstandings. DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP!

I can hear some of you chewing your lips. “But what about the kid who didn’t do the reading? Isn’t this letting him off the hook? How can I teach my students responsibility if they can get away with not doing their homework?”

This is not a problem.

First off, you’re not going to do jigsaws for every reading assignment, so this can’t become a habit. Second, the kid who doesn’t do homework on a regular basis will probably end up doing poorly in your class regardless. Third, your learning goal was that the students be able to explain the functions of organelles, not demonstrate responsibility. This is not to say you shouldn’t encourage responsibility in your students, only that there are times when you have to pick your battles. Pick those that are big enough to matter and small enough to win.

Step 4: Place one student from each “expert” team in a group and allow them to explain the main ideas from their reading assignment.

The process is differentiated in several ways. First, during Step 3, you should spend more time with your lower achieving group to support their understanding of the material. Circulate to all the groups, but your lower group will need you more. Second, you have structured the activity of reading so that lower achieving students are given fewer steps and simpler tasks while higher achieving students are not forced to endure a slower pace, as they would if the reading were done in class.

There are other ways to differentiate by process. Tomorrow I’ll take on tiered assignments.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering, you should not use Jigsaw with literature.

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