Commentary: Teaching to Make a Difference

Gussie Singer, Rabbi Joe Hirsch, Beth Fine, Tikvah Wiener

Recent work in neuroscience and psychology reveals two findings that should be central in educational planning. First, virtually all brains are malleable. When we teach as though students are smart, they become smarter. Second, a related but separate body of research indicates that teachers who believe firmly in the untapped capacity of each learner, and thus set out to demonstrate to students that by working hard and working smart they can achieve impressive goals, get far better results than teachers who believe some students are smart, others are not, and little can be done to change that. It's difficult to grow brains and help students develop growth mindsets in remedial contexts.

Carol Ann Tomlinson


Gussie Singer, director of intervention services, Joseph & Florence Mandel Jewish Day School, Beachwood, Ohio:

Tomlinson eloquently expresses a truth that is experienced and known by many: Education is about relationships. What we as teachers see in our students guides how we teach them, how they learn and, furthermore, what they can achieve. Our expectations have great power. Tomlinson declares that we have to believe emphatically, earnestly, in the capacity of every child to exceed expectations that have been set before, not because it’s sentimental and the right thing to do, not just because it’s a moral or spiritually sound orientation, but because the science tells us so. Brains can change, and hard work is as much a factor in academic achievement as IQ.

If we know this to be true, then how are we, as teachers, thinking about our role differently? How are we changing our classroom goals? How are we observing and getting to know our students in the first critical weeks of school, differently? How are we, as school administrators and leaders, starting the year? What inspiration do we offer our teachers to look at a child differently and embrace the power that a teacher’s mindset has in shaping a child’s life? How are we creating school spaces, schedules and dialogue that will provide us a path to shifting our mindset? Importantly, how are we caring for our teachers, so that they have the energy, creativity and will to go out on a limb for each child?

Rabbi Joe Hirsch, lead learning designer and 4th grade Judaic studies teacher, Akiba Academy of Dallas; author, The Feedback Fix:

Differentiation isn't just great practice—it’s a communication art form. When teachers right-size their methods and materials, they deliver a powerful message about learning and leading. Every student can become a source and force for knowledge. With differentiation, we show the hidden power and potential of every individual. That's exactly the kind of feedback students need to hear from us today.

Beth Fine, Judaics coordinator and instructional coach, The Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle:

While the work on growth mindset and its significance in fueling student progress is well accepted in education today, many settings are only beginning to grapple with applying this same lens to coaching, supervision and evaluation of teachers. Do schools consistently consider teachers as humans with infinite possibility who are thirsty to grow in skill and confidence? How do we set, in collaboration with teachers, appropriate expectations of both performance and progress, given this mindset? How do administrators balance a belief in teacher potential with the need to respond to parent complaints? How does this approach differ when working with a first-year teacher or a twenty-year veteran? What is the responsibility of teachers to actively engage in learning and share their goals, their experiments, their ups and downs with colleagues and supervisors in order to include others in the journey of growth? In other words, how do we balance professional standards with the belief in the growth mindset of teachers?

Tikvah Wiener, head of school, The Idea School, a co-ed Orthodox school to open in 2018 using interdisciplinary, project-based learning, Bergen Country, New Jersey:

Tomlinson’s words make me wonder about what would happen if we thought completely differently about the way we track students. Of course, we need to offer each student the support, structure and enrichment that she needs to succeed, but we also have to challenge each child and find the way to unlock his potential and individual strengths. By offering students many entry points into learning—textual, visual, audio, tactile, for example—and the ability to show their learning through different media, we give them a chance to show the way in which they’re “smart.” We also have to make sure kids who are strong in different areas—the traditional academic subjects, the arts, STEM, Making, interpersonal skills, etc.—get to bump up against each other all day long. Removing kids from the influence of their peers and the knowledge they can gain from each other eliminates a powerful avenue of learning for them. We create positive peer pressure when we enable students to see that each person contributes something valuable to learning.

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HaYidion Differentiation Fall 2017
Fall 2017