The School Boards of Districts 65 and 202 held a joint meeting on Jan. 12 at Evanston Township High School to discuss collaboration on differentiated instruction, bilingual programs and instruction, special education transitions and a joint mathematics initiative.

A substantial part of the meeting focused on differentiated instruction, which “is central to the work of both School Districts’ efforts to improve student achievement,” said Assistant Superintendents Susan Schultz (District 65) and Laura Cooper (District 202) in a jointly prepared memorandum. It is “at the center of our Districts’ efforts to improve teaching and learning,” they said.

Increasing the Range of Learners in the Classroom

Improving differentiated instruction in the classroom is becoming increasingly important in each School District because each has implemented programs in the past few years that have increased the range of learners in the classroom.

In the early 2000s, District 65 began to shift from using pull-out programs for struggling readers to using the regular classroom as the primary place to meet the needs of those students. In the last few years, the District has emphasized the need to educate students with a disability to the maximum extent possible in the general classroom. At the same time, the District plans to challenge advanced students in the general classroom.

Although mixed level classes have existed at ETHS “for decades” in courses ranging from biology to U.S. history, they have been expanded recently in order to expose more students, particularly minority students, to honors level work.

In particular, the Freshman Humanities program was changed for the 2008-2009 school year to eliminate the regular level, retaining only a very selective honors track, a mixed honors/regular track and an enriched (remedial) track.

Also, Senior English is now completely mixed level with no separate honors track. Seniors can take AP English or a variety of mixed level English electives as an alternative to the mixed-level Senior English class. A small group of seniors receive additional support in enriched classes.

“If we look at today’s classrooms, they are academically diverse, said Ms. Shultz. “You’ll see students with learning difficulties, English-language learners, advanced learners, students who chronically underachieve, students with different skills and students with different interests.”

Differentiating Instruction

While each District has various support programs (i.e., push-in classroom supports, co-teaching, extended day, the System of Supports), both are focusing on increasing teachers’ capacity to provide differentiated instruction within the classroom. “Differentiated instruction is a systematic approach to planning curriculum and instruction for diverse learners,” said Ms. Shultz.

Both Districts have “embraced the same model for planning and delivering differentiated instruction,” a model developed by Carol Ann Tomlinson, a professor of educational leadership, foundations and policy studies at the University of Virginia. Some of the key elements of the Tomlinson model are as follows:

  • The teacher should use “formative assessments” of students (i.e., continually gather information about a student’s knowledge and skills) in order to make targeted adjustments to instructing that student.
  • The teacher should use “flexible grouping” as a primary mechanism for differentiating instruction. The grouping should be based on ongoing formative assessments of the students; grouping and regrouping of students should be a dynamic process.
  • The teacher should provide optimal challenge for individual students and groups of students through respectful tasks.
  • The teacher should create a positive learning environment and have a high-quality curriculum.”Differentiated instruction is teaching all students at a high level,” Ms. Shultz said. “All students will be doing challenging work.”

Malleable Intelligence

“One of the big ideas behind differentiation is the core belief that intelligence is malleable,” said Dr. Cooper. The research conducted by Carol Dweck and others demonstrates that intelligence is not fixed at birth, but that it is, in fact, malleable and that it changes over the course of a lifetime, she said.

“If students feel their intelligence is fixed at a low level, they’re likely to feel helpless,” said Dr. Cooper. “If they feel they’re one of those who have it fixed at a high level, they’re likely to feel entitled.”

Dr. Cooper said teachers need to set high goals for students and teach them that intelligence is malleable and that they can increase their intelligence as a result of effective effort and hard work.

Professional Development

A key to effectively implementing the Tomlinson model of differentiation is providing professional development. Each District plans to provide professional development to teachers, taking into account the teacher’s skill level. In addition, each District is working with consultants Kristina Doubet, a professor in education at James Madison University, and Jessica Hockett, a doctoral candidate in curriculum and instruction at the University of Virginia, to provide and assist in developing a professional development program.

The Malleable Brain

An article, “”Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention,”” co-authored by Carol Dweck, Kali Trzesniewski and Lisa Blackwell, and published in the journal Child Development (January/February 2007), reported research findings that if students are taught that their intelligence is malleable (i.e., that it can grow and increase), they do better in school.

The authors say students may hold different “”theories”” about the nature of intelligence, and their beliefs become the mental “”baggage”” that they bring to school. “”Some students believe that intelligence is more of an unchangeable, fixed ‘entity’ (an entity theory). Others think of intelligence as a malleable quality that can be developed (an incremental theory).”” Research has shown a student’s theory of intelligence “”shapes [his or her] responses to academic challenge,”” the authors say.

In one study, the researchers designed an eight-week intervention program in which one group of students was taught study skills and also taught through science-based readings that the brain is malleable and can be developed, including that learning changes the brain by forming new connections and that students are in charge of this process. Another group of students, the control group, were taught study skills, but were not taught about the malleability and growth of the brain.

Over a two-year period, students who were taught about the malleability of the brain showed an upward trend in academic achievement. Students in the control group, however, showed a downward trend. The study also found that the students who believed in a malleable ( or incremental) theory of intelligence “”endorse stronger learning goals, hold more positive beliefs about effort, and make fewer ability-based, ‘helpless’ attributions, with the result that they choose more positive, effort-based strategies in response to failure …””

The article states that believing intelligence to be malleable “”does not imply that everyone has exactly the same potential in every domain, or will learn everything with equal ease. Rather, it means that for any given individual, intellectual ability can always be further developed.””

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...