I started 2016 feeling different about many things. I have spent the last 5 months learning with students to whom we are providing language support in order for them to engage fully in the inquiries that take place in the classroom. All this time, I have been thinking about differentiation, and I have, hence, wondered whether we differentiate according to students’ background? Whether we wonder how students process learning in their native language? And whether we are assuming that the differentiation we are putting in place (which might be based on a European language mindset/framework) will work for students for whom English is their 2nd or 3rd language?
Language, in whichever form, is one of the most powerful emblems of classroom behavior. In a standard monolingual classroom (what’s standard anymore?!), one in which we know and speak students’ mother tongue, we use language to send vital social messages about who we are, where we come from, and whom we associate with. The transfer of information, thus, is the result of our basic to social interactions, of the connections we are able to make between understandings and by being aware of how we are being affected by them. While differentiating in this scenario, teachers coordinate time, space, materials, and activities and can establish different channels of dialogue with the student in a common language. However, when one knows little or nothing about students’ mother tongue and how ideas are put together, that is a whole different universe. [Check Chaika, E. (1994), Language: The Social Mirror].
Language is more than just words, so differentiating for students whose language teachers do not speak, implies becoming a learner and learn about the way ideas are constructed, the way truth is expressed, and the way value systems are appreciated through the students’ language [Check Macaulay, R (1994) The Social Art: Language and Its Uses]. Our brain is malleable: we think, learn, and create in different ways. So it is not hard to believe that when teachers enter the mind of a child whose learning is being differentiated, they will inevitably come across realities that their planning might not have allowed them to prepare for. Yet, since the learning is in process, one must not turn around and pretend this situation does not exist. More importantly, one must not pretend that these situations are not as serious as they might look. On the contrary, let’s be true and genuine inquirers and explore them deeply to find out more.
For this reason, it never hurts to know a little bit about sociolinguistics, for we deal with this concept everyday. Aren’t our days of teaching and learning filled with language in social and cultural context; with interactions between different social identities (e.g. gender, age, race, ethnicity, class); and with different emotions that cause one’s meaning to change, or adjust to different situations? For those of us whose mother tongue is not English and must operate in an English environment, we are always subject to filters that create challenges when trying to convey meanings, or demonstrate that we have achieved a new understanding: ways of pronouncing words, choice of words, patterns of words. And the truth is that many times these impediments are the result of structures we grew up with: why would Hindi speakers place “is” and “are” at the end of a sentence? Why can Chinese speakers have a tendency to describe from general to specific and to group ideas in ‘big concepts’? Why would an Arabic speaker find it difficult to understand the concept of written and spoken diphthongs and triphthongs? How can a simple decision not to include words with several “r’s” help a student whose mother tongue is Japanese or Chinese? We only need to learn a little about who these students are and where they are come from to understand and devise a system that is proper for the way they process ideas in their language. [Check a personal favorite: Labov, W. (2010), Principles of Linguistic Change]
Learning is more than experiences.
Differentiation is more than students’ choices, and different processes and designs.
I am convinced that the soul of differentiation is empathy, and that teachers who plan teaching by placing themselves at the core of the learning process, along and at the same level of students, will know how to transform challenge and difficulties into opportunities. Sadly, or thankfully, there are no formulas for differentiation; its success is the result of observation, engagement and experimentation.
In this process, not only will teachers live the experience with students, but also adapt to situations when the ground gets softer or rougher, when the weather feels confused between hot and cold, and when the light dims and situations get darker and darker.
In many frameworks the student is placed at the center of it all, and I am solely hoping we, teachers, are able to see ourselves there as well.
“Since an encounter with an advanced interstellar intelligence would be incomprehensible within our present earthbound frames of reference, reactions to it will have elements of philosophy and metaphysics that have nothing to do with the bare plot outline itself.”
– Stanley Kubrick (explaining the last scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey)
There will be an iteration of this entry in which I will share some of my findings working Chinese and Korean students. Stay tuned.