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rock climbing“Sure, there is no problem for beginners.”

That’s what the woman said who booked my trip to do rock climbing in Yangshuo, China. I was there for the Hari Raya holiday and had made friends with a German girl “S,” and a guy from New Zealand “P.” We had all decided to do rock climbing together and then go river rafting. S was also a beginner, but P had climbed many times before.

When we got to the rocks, we had to put on special shoes made just for climbing. These bent your feet so that you could cling to small crevices in the rock to lift yourself up. We also had to be attached to a harness which was attached to a rope. This was our life line in case we were to fall.

The first rock we climbed was a 5.7. This was a relatively easy climb and all three of us were able to make it to the top. Of course, P was the fastest. The next one was a 5.8. P made good time going up. S took longer. I was last, and I made it up with a lot of effort. It felt challenging to me, but I could still do it.

Then things changed. The instructor wanted us to do a harder climb “Just to try.” This was a 5.9. P was barely able to manage it. If P found it so hard, how would the rest of us do? S made it up some of the way because she was quite tall and could reach a portion of the rock that was quite high. I could not manage at all, that piece of rock was too high for me to reach with my short legs, and that was the only way to progress on the rock.
Now, if you were the instructor what would you do? You have a class of mixed ability, and you have a rock face with different abilities of climbs. How would you arrange the next climb for the three students?

Let me tell you what my instructor did, and the results of it. The instructor gave us another 5.9. P struggled, S struggled, I couldn’t do it.

This left me discouraged and with bad feelings towards my instructor and potentially towards climbing. I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t do the climb, and I felt bad because I was here for the same reasons as the others: I wanted to climb. Yet, They got to climb 4 times and I only got to climb 2.

What should the instructor have done?

He should have observed our levels and let us climb at the appropriate level for our ability! This is classic differentiation. He saw that the 5.8 was challenging for me. So, he should have asked me if I would like to climb the 5.8 again or if I would like to try the 5.9. Even if he asked me to try the 5.9 once, if he saw I could not do it even with support, he should have let me climb the 5.8. It was challenging enough for me that I would build my confidence and strength climbing at that level. If I was another type of person, I might give up on climbing after this experience.

This is like how we should approach differentiation in our classrooms. We have students of mixed ability, so how can we think of giving them all 5.9 work? Some of them might be challenged with 5.7 or 5.8. Or maybe they can climb a 5.8 but with extra support.

In rock climbing and in the classroom, differentiation requires that we think about these things:

Equipment– what tools do the students need to succeed at the task? Do all students need the same tools? What about students with special needs?

Ability– what rock climbing 2are the abilities of the students? How can we adjust the activity to meet the needs of students with different ability levels?

Support– how can students be supported to achieve their full potential?

Life line– if a student falls, what system is in place to get them back on track? The facilitator is holding the rope, and keeping the student from falling. What is the rope for our activity? How do we keep the student from falling? Would it be extra after school support? A talk with the parents about extra at home practice?

I hope this story has helped shed light on the need for differentiation in the classroom and given you ideas for implementation. At least my embarrassing rock climbing experience has an interesting moral.