Recently my 11-year-old son, Jack, decided we should work on a puzzle together. We went to Walmart and he picked out a 300 piece puzzle for us. Jack and my 13-year-old daughter, Emma, easily put it together in an evening while I cooked dinner and completed other chores. I didn’t even get a chance to contribute. We decided we wanted a bigger challenge.
Next, we purchased a 1,000 piece puzzle. Emma was able to get most of the edges together over the course of a few nights and then stalled out. Overwhelmed by the mass of inside pieces, she gave up and hasn’t touched the puzzle in weeks. Jack and I turned over all the pieces to the correct side one evening and I got some pieces to go together, but for the most part, it sits lonely on the card table in the living room just waiting for someone to give it some attention.
Is this puzzle too much of a challenge for us? Should we have gone with a 500 piece puzzle instead? I’m not sure, but I do know I’m not giving up on this baby and I am not finishing it alone. Emma and Jack better get ready.
As I wonder what I can do to make them interested in the puzzle again, I think, “I need to make some progress on it–get some pieces together and get the kids closer to the end result.” Those of you in education can probably see where I am going with this. We have a goal or a target we want our students to hit. We know that it’s not fair to our students to lower our expectations for them. All students deserve the opportunity to get there. We can not deny any students the most rigorous curriculum, but certainly, it’s going to be a longer and more difficult road to get to the same target for some students more than others.
The challenge we face as educators is to provide the supports and pieces that give our students a gentle push and a leg up at the same time. There’s a sweet spot between a puzzle that’s too easy and one that overwhelms them. We can’t do the puzzle for them, yet we can’t just let them give up. So what’s the answer?
The answer lies in the way we differentiate. As we enter into our second semester, I am reading, Leading for Differentiation: Growing Teachers Who Grow Kids by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Michael Murphy. Ethically, I know differentiating instruction is the right thing to do. Tomlinson writes:
In a democratic society and based on our best knowledge of quality teaching, there is a strong ethical imperative to differentiate instruction in the context of heterogeneous classrooms. Strong leaders have the opportunity to help colleagues establish and follow an ethical North.
I couldn’t believe in this more. Tomlinson continues:
Teachers who differentiate instruction effectively craft an environment that signals the value of each individual, provides high challenge with high support, and emphasizes the power of community in achieving success for every learner.
I’ve been in classrooms where teachers do this at high levels. These are the teachers with the highest expectations, who are not satisfied until all of their students master the content, and whose test results reflect those behaviors year after year, no matter the group.
As I dig deeper into the content of the book, I can see that as I attempt to lead for differentiation I’ll be putting together a huge puzzle of my own. I’ll be learning and making my own mistakes along the way, and I’m sure I’ll continue to feel overwhelmed at times. I do believe it is among the most noble of causes, though. Tomlinson writes that “it provides an opportunity for leaders and teachers to honor what should be the promise of every school for every young person who enters its doors:
We see you, we hold you in high regard, and we will give ourselves to your success as a learner and as a human being.”