A Strategy to Differentiate Instruction for the 21st Century Class
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Education in the 21st Century is fraught with political, social, and economic issues. The advent of the Common Core State Standards, the shift towards performance-based assessments, and the new Local Control Funding Formula generate questions at all levels of the education system. Classroom teachers are no exception. We constantly find ourselves asking: How can I cluster the CCSS to teach towards a depth of understanding? What resources are available to help differentiate the curriculum to meet the needs, interests, and abilities of all learners in my classroom? How can I leverage my instructional time to meet CCSS and 21st Century skills? We may never be able to answer fully all of our questions, but we can mold and shape the way learning experiences are designed and content presented to the students in our classroom. Learning centers serve as one instructional strategy that can aid teachers in their quest to meet the demands of the 21st Century education and prepare students for thinking and knowing in a 21st Century society.
The seminal research on learning centers supports their use as a viable means of targeting the individual differences (academic, social, developmental, and behavioral) of students within the regular classroom. A learning center is meant to function as an additional “teacher” or resource that can support and bolster the mandatory curriculum. Learning centers provide students with opportunities to reinforce what has been taught, extend core content to new areas of interest, and/or enhance previously learned information with independent study. They can be used as part of a rotational system where students can work independently or in small groups on tasks related to the core content lessons. Students can self-select tasks within the learning center or can be assigned specific areas within the center to focus on. Although learning centers can vary in shape, size, duration, and implementation, the following list outlines a few non-negotiable elements that successful learning centers contain.
A Learning Center should include:
- A Location – Learning centers should have a designated location or space within the classroom. This space could be a corner of the room, a few desks alongside the wall, or a tri-fold board that gets pulled out and put away as needed. Whether your learning center is fixed or flexible, it should be located in a space, away from the regular lesson, where individual or groups of students can work in a self-directed manner.
- A Label to Title – Learning centers should have a clear label or title. Labeling the learning center helps make explicit its focus and purpose to students and other classroom stakeholders. The theme for the learning center could discipline specific, such as addition, or interdisciplinary and connected to a universal concept such as “change” or “power.”
- Task Cards – Learning centers should provide clear directions to students for what they should accomplish during their time at the center. Essentially, task cards describe the activities available at the center and, if applicable, the order in which they are to be completed. Task cards should be written in a format that includes what students are to do (the thinking skill) and the manner they are to do it (product). Tasks can be differentiated to meet the needs of various learners in the class and/or can be open to all students.
- Time Frame – Learning centers should have a definitive life span in the classroom. Centers should be relevant and connected to current content areas under study. Time frames should be long enough for students to accomplish all of the task cards, but short enough to prevent repetitiveness of activities. Time considerations should also be given to how long students spend at the learning center itself. Factors such as developmental readiness, the pacing of the content, and daily schedules could dictate the amount of time students spend interacting with the learning center.
- Resources and Supplies – Learning centers should house all of the materials and supplies necessary to complete the task cards. These materials can include basic supplies such as pens, pencils, markers, scissors, and tape. Tools of research such as books, internet sites, maps, and photos should also be included in the learning center. The goal is to include, within the space of the learning center, all of the required resources and supplies that students will need. This is done in order to place students’ focus on working at the center rather than on gathering materials.
- Recording System – Learning centers should have a record keeping system to document and track students’ work. Recording systems can range from simple sign-in logs, to work sample portfolios, to individual journals. It is important to note that although teachers are not working with students at the learning center, they are still monitoring progress towards the completion of the tasks.
- Management Strategy – Learning centers should have an organizational strategy or a way to manage their implementation in the classroom. It is important to consider where a learning center can be used – where in a unit of study, where in the schedule of the school day, where in the classroom, where in the school year? Management of a learning center also requires teachers to think about questions such as: How many students can participate at the center at one time? How do I group students to participate at the center? How do manage the physical rotation and movement throughout the classroom?
Learning centers have the potential to engage students in core content lessons and serve as a catalyst for unlocking new interests and potential. They can provide teachers with an instructional strategy that can be used to extend, reinforce, and elaborate the Common Core State Standards. They can provide opportunities for students to develop self-regulatory behaviors, to work in a collaborative nature with peers, and to take an active role in how they select and utilize tools and strategies to help them learn. Learning centers are a tool for thinking and for learning and should be made equally available to all students in the classroom. They are not rewards for students who finish their work early or are kept in reserve for gifted and high ability students. In an era of 21st Century thinking and standards, teachers can utilize learning centers as a means of activating potential and developing depth of content knowledge in all students.
About Jessica Manzone
Jessica Manzone, University of Southern California, has been a Research Assistant on two Department of Education grants to assist in the collection and analysis of data. Dr. Manzone currently teaches at USC in the MAT program. She also has been instrumental in managing the grant resources and disseminating curriculum materials through direct interactions with grant affiliated administrators and teachers. Dr. Manzone has been recognized for her abilities to develop and present in school districts and conferences the principles of differentiated curriculum to educators. Her primary professional responsibilities throughout her career have been in Title I schools working with students of diversity. Dr. Manzone has co-authored three publications related to differentiated curriculum for gifted students. Currently, she is the co-author of a publication targeting the implementation of the Common Core State Standards of mathematical practice.