(lubavitch.com) A visitor to a middle school classroom in Los Angeles on a sunny morning some months ago was greeted with what appeared to be utter chaos. The desks were not lined up, everyone seemed to be talking at once, and almost no one was paying any attention to the young twenty-something teacher, who was unfazed by the scene in front of her.
It was a perfect learning environment.
Rabbi Nochem Kaplan, the director of the Education Office of Merkos L’Inyonei, the educational arm of Chabad Lubavitch, was on a mission to learn all he could about a teaching methodology known as Differentiated Instruction, or DI. The school, Bais Rebbe, with its sister elementary school Bais Chaya Mushka, has pioneered the use of DI as a school-wide approach to Jewish studies.
‘In the course of two days that I was there,” he said, “I didn’t see a single child not learning … there was constant learning going on. The brightest kids were doing expansion activities, not bored any more. The weakest in learning were now doing what they were never able to do before.”
DI was a major theme at this year’s Chabad-Lubavitch conference on education (Chinuch Conference), held earlier this month in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Some 140 Lubavitch emissaries from schools throughout the U.S. as well as Brazil and Australia attended the women’s conference, sponsored by Chinuch Office of Lubavitch Headquarters. (A parallel conference for men will take place in August.)
Mrs. Devorah Kreiman, the principal of Bais Rebbe and the person responsible for developing its DI program, provided a sampling of her work during two packed days of talks and workshops. A video of an 8th grade class in action enabled attendees to see for themselves how a DI classroom functions.
Rabbi Kaplan’s goal is to introduce DI throughout the network of Chabad schools, which serve about 22,000 students nationwide. He sees it as critical to ensuring that every child has a positive and successful learning experience in yeshiva or day school.
By eliminating a lot of the frustration that turns kids off, he says, we can “teach them to swim independently instead of calling a lifeguard after they are drowning.”
How DI Changes the Equation
In a typical classroom, according to Mrs. Kreiman, you’ll find that about a third of the kids already know the material or can learn it quickly on their own, another third don’t get it – and only the remaining third are really learning. The others are just wasting time.
The result is anxiety for some, boredom for others.
The big difference with DI is that the students are divided into small groups based on a preassessment of their strengths and weaknesses. Within each group, the students work together. The teacher spot-checks their progress, answers questions, and makes adjustments as they are needed. Every student has work to do that is challenging enough – and doable enough – to keep her interest.
“We have to figure out the answers by ourselves before the teacher comes to help us, so we get to use our own minds to figure everything out,” says 8th-grader Hadassah Arnold, 13, speaking on Mrs. Kreiman’s video.
The DI principle addresses the needs of every level of student.
“What’s exciting to me is that it deals with the needs of kids at the upper end of the spectrum as well,” said Mrs. Chaya Epstein, assistant principal of the Lubavitch Girls’ High School in Chicago, who attended the conference. “There is a lot of awareness now of special needs, and kids are getting services and therapies and early interventions … but the really bright or talented students are often bored out of their minds.”
Mrs. Kreiman explained in an email that the student groups are flexible in all areas except the specific skill work. In other words, for Chumash (Torah or bible studies) and Hebrew language the kids work at their current skill level in order to grow toward independent learning and competence with text and language.
“In other subjects, the groups can change all the time. Students can choose how to show what they have learned – i.e., through creative expression, song, art, drama or poetry. It can be random — a group of four working together to solve a problem.”
Since DI also addresses areas of learning beyond skill levels – such as learning styles and student interests – Mrs. Kreiman is already planning to take the program to the next level by incorporating these variables into the program.
Practice, Not Just Theory
In a sense, DI is not new. Every time a teacher gives a student extra help or a modified assignment, they are providing differentiated instruction. “All good teachers, whether they realize it or not, differentiate to some degree,” according to Diane Heacox, the author of Differentiating Instruction in the Regular Classroom: How to Reach and Teach All Learners.
but putting the goals of differentiation into practice in a consistent, practical day-to-day way requires advance planning and teacher mentoring. The prospect can seem daunting to a teacher who hasn’t been taught how to do it and given a system.
“Mentoring is key,” says Mrs. Kreiman. She also advocates adopting the method one step at a time and incorporating it into the curriculum according to each situation — making it real, not theoretical.
“We didn’t work from theory,” she said. “We sat down and asked ourselves, ‘What do these kids need? What are they missing? How can we give it to them?’ ”
The result was a series of templates and charts that teachers can use to assess and track student progress and adjust their teaching accordingly. Such templates, guidelines and systems keep teachers from being overwhelmed and make it possible for the method to work.
Consistent with Deepest Principles of Chabad
The relationship between teacher and student is discussed frequently in Chabad Chasidic ideas – as an analogy for the relationship between God and man, and on its own merit as the foundation for true education.
Decades ago, the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke about the need for small-group learning based on student differences.
“No two minds are alike, and therefore it is impossible for all to be on the same level, be it in analytical skills, understanding, knowledge or grasp of a subject. [Therefore] classes must be divided into smaller groups,” the Rebbe said in a talk given in 1972.
A film recording of the talk, reproduced on the video that was shown at the conference, brought the Rebbe’s words to life.
More advanced students, said the Rebbe, should be required to delve further and deeper, while those who need help must work to develop their skills and understanding. “This is to spark their drive for excellence [and] will result in greater achievement for all classes.”
“It’s doable,” says Rabbi Kaplan. He is confident DI can be the vehicle that ensures no child will be left behind.