Differentiating the learning process, the content to be learned, the products that learners share, and even the learning environment and tools used, these have all become an integral aspect of a successful teaching practice. As educators, we differentiate because we recognize and acknowledge the diversity in need, interests, abilities, and readiness (among many other characteristics) that our learners bring into the classroom. We consider what we know about our students going into a lesson, what we discover about them along the way, and how our students themselves will engage (or not) with the content, their peers, and the learning experience. I value differentiated teaching because it acknowledges and reflects my own belief that learners deserve a variety of opportunities and experiences to connect meaningfully with content and with others. My challenge and responsibility as an educator and their learning guide, is to cultivate a rich and diverse learning experience that provides learners with meaningful choices that reflect their differences.
When I designed a differentiated unit plan for a group of 6th grade classes in Anchorage, Alaska, my goal was to demonstrate the effectiveness of a MinecraftEdu learning experience in engaging a diverse group of learners. This artifact showcases several ways that I successfully met the SOE goal of Differentiation. First, it was important to connect the lived experiences of the students with the explorers that were being studied. Oftentimes, studying historical characters and making personal connections with their experiences and cultural significance can be a challenging and even boring task for students. In reviewing the content, it became clear that the journey and hardships that the explorers faced mirrored experiences that might be familiar or similar in the community where the students lived. By using an immersive learning experience such as MinecraftEdu, students would be able to creatively interpret the reading and recreate the physical environment being described. They would also experience important concepts such as struggle, impossible, and courage through their time in the game completing their tasks thereby creating an immediate and relevant context for the content.
Second, by using MinecraftEdu to provide a hook, I was also able to present students with a complex but engaging technology tool, a blank landscape with which to express their ideas, and collaborative tasks that encouraged idea sharing, problem-solving, and team building experiences. Other strategies for differentiating included various methods for engaging with the content, a range of flexible grouping options, multiple opportunities for choices as well as meaningful reflection on the content as well as each student’s own process and learning. The entire unit plan is infused with options for differentiation in an intentional and cohesive way. In encouraging and respecting differences and providing meaningful choices for students, the teacher will be able to foster student investment and ownership in the learning experience.
Which brings me to my third point; by emphasizing a learner-centered, learner-owned, and learned-directed approach to this unit plan, I demonstrated how individual needs, abilities, interests, and readiness can actually enhance a classroom learning experience rather than detract from it. The diversity of ideas and perspectives is actually an important characteristic of this unit plan and serves to encourage students to share their own unique ideas and interpretations of the content. If differentiation can become more than a teacher strategy or priority but a shared value with learners, the learning experience takes on a whole new meaning for everyone involved.
To meet the ISTE (NETS-C) standards aligned with the Differentiation goal, I have three (3) artifacts that demonstrate mastery. I created a Teacher MinecraftEdu Challenge Activity as part of a teacher training course using MinecraftEdu; the activity accomplished several objectives related to the NETS-C standards. Teachers were able to practice gameplay in preparation for facilitating a MinecraftEdu experience in their classroom; practicing skills and understanding how to navigate the game world and modify player settings and options would play a critical role in how well each teacher would be able to manage their own students over the course of the experience.
Teachers would also take turns managing student or player behavior in the game and managing the game environment using the appropriate teacher tools. Using the tools and knowing when to use them required guided practice since managing students as players in a virtual gameworld differed greatly from managing behavior and interactions in the physical classroom. We simulated how teachers could provide tips and prompts in the game chat to the class or to individual students, how they could move within the gameworld to observe and assist where needed. They learned how to enhance or limit abilities, provide tools and resources within and outside the game (and even before, during, and after the gameplay), and how to scale behavior management strategies as needed for individuals or groups.
I had teachers role play as students and simulate a particular player or gamer type; this helped them to understand the motivations and actions of player types and how they would need to support and facilitate learning in the gameworld. When the teachers were tasked with being the sole teacher facilitating a game environment of fellow teachers role-playing as students, they found that differentiation was an integral aspect of managing the game. Explaining this to the teachers was not nearly as effective as having them simulate the experience; we also saw that each teacher approached the task in their own way, complementing their individual skillsets and strengths but not necessarily indicating that one approach was better than another. This effectively modeled for teachers how they could purposefully prepare for differentiation while designing an experience. It also showed that just as importantly, how they managed the experience, in the moment, when students were engaging with the content, the gameworld, and each other, could be allow for differentiation.
As supplemental tools for the teacher practice sessions we had in the game, I also shared some ideas in my weblog post, “My differentiation tools for the Givercraft Experience“ and again in, “Differentiation opportunities in Survivalcraft: The Maze Runner & Lord of the Flies“. Both posts were intended to model for teachers how to differentiate the given scenarios for both Givercraft and Survivalcraft and meet the diverse needs, interests, abilities, and readiness of the players (students).