One of the most significant barriers to differentiating is a misunderstanding of the purpose of grade-level standards.
Many folks see grade-level standards as a maximum of what they are allowed to teach a student.
The truth is the opposite.
Grade-level standards are a minimum not a maximum. They’re a floor, not a ceiling. They’re what you must do not what you can do. You should go beyond your standards whenever you have the opportunity.
We Don’t Teach THAT In Second Grade
At a workshop, a second-grade teacher mentioned teaching “energy,” and I pointed out that she could extend the topic to include potential and kinetic energy. She scoffed and said, “Oh we don’t teach that in second grade.”
Why the heck not?
Why couldn’t you at least mention the relatively simple idea that some energy is currently being used and some energy is stored up for later use? Many second graders could absolutely understand that.
In fact, some kids would eat that up!
Let’s be very careful not to underestimate our students. Many are ready for work that is several grade levels beyond their age.
Advanced Kids Deserve Advanced Content
Friends, just because a textbook doesn’t include certain information doesn’t mean your students’ heads will explode if they hear it. How can you possibly differentiate for advanced kids without aiming beyond standards?
I’ve run into this mindset over and over: a mistaken belief that you can only teach kids certain things at certain ages.
Sure, it’s unlikely your third-graders are going to master calculus, but it sure doesn’t mean you can’t expose them to advanced ideas.
In fact, those advanced ideas are often exciting and tantalizing, especially if you present them as material for older students.
Something Forbidden From The Future
One of the few things I remember learning in 8th grade was the term “ethnocentrism.” Why do I so clearly remember Mr. Horning teaching it to us?
Because it was presented as information “for 11th graders.” He challenged us mere middle schoolers to remember this term. He told us when we met our 11th-grade American History teacher, Mr. Wu, we were to let him know that Mr. Horning already taught us “ethnocentrism!”
Did it work? You bet. And Mr. Wu loved it.
I pulled the same stunt on my 6th graders. I told the class they could stay in from recess and I’d explain the forbidden, 8th-grade knowledge of negative exponents. Guess what? I had a group of students give up recess for an extra math lesson!
Heck, most of what I remember from being a sixth grader are lines from Macbeth. We memorized and performed Shakespeare’s real words from 1606 in front of an audience. Mrs. Price didn’t water it down (although she did shorten it).
Important note: in each case, the claim was true. It was honest-to-goodness “advanced content.”
Also important: teachers must know way more than their grade’s content. I have a sneaky suspicion that the second-grade teacher I mentioned above had no idea what “kinetic and potential energy” meant.
Go Beyond Your Standards
Standards are the basic expectation, not the upper limit. If we want to differentiate for advanced students there’s no choice but to take them beyond the grade-level standards.
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