Anne Taffin d’Heursel Baldisseri is a doctor in zoology with extensive experience in school management. She has a postgraduate degree in educational management and is currently a research member of NEAPEL (Núcleo de Ensino,
Assistência e Pesquisa em Leitura e Escrita) at UNIFESP (Universidade Federal de São Paulo), and aims to complete a postdoctorate related to bilingualism, metacognition and self-regulation. She has published several articles and a chapter of the book Biology and Ecology of Vertebrates. Anne worked as Head of Pre-Preparatory at St. Paul’s School, São Paulo, Brazil, from 2007 to 2016. During this period, she was responsible for organizing two Education Conferences, bringing speakers from Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education, in addition to other important international names. Anne has given workshops and courses at national and international events, focused on differentiation, formative assessment and teacher collaboration. These experiences led her to create, together with some colleagues in the field, a strategy for individualized learning, called Flag Time.
Educators use differentiated instruction in order to face the dilemma of implementing the curriculum while developing each student fully and responding to each student’s needs within class time. However, common forms of pedagogical differentiation, such as learning centers, readiness groups and choice tasks, generally do not place students as protagonists of their own learning. For example, children can switch between a wide variety of engaging activities or complete tasks assigned by the teacher without knowing the purpose of the learning or reflecting on why the task was assigned or what was learned. In other words, the required curriculum standards do not always consider the interest of each and every student.
BONDIE and ZUSHO (2018) define differentiated instruction as the result of a continuous decision-making process in the classroom where the teacher recruits the academic diversity of the students to make learning more effective and efficient.
The authors define differentiated instruction in three ways:
1. Adjustable Common Instruction, where the same objectives, resources and assessments are used, but the instruction is modified to meet the needs of individual students.
2. Specific resources, where students use different resources and materials to achieve the same goal.
3. Individualized, where all students have the possibility to practice, review and challenge themselves in different skills according to their interest and what they need to improve.
Research on the development of interest assumes that it can be triggered and maintained through external references, such as the teachers’ support for learning. Teachers strengthen student autonomy when they consider the preferences and interests of students when selecting and designing tasks, justifying their relevance and offering the opportunity for questioning. Thus, they embrace the students’ perspectives and do not pressure them to think, act or feel in a single way.
Therefore, to meet the wide range of learning needs, the choice of tasks by teachers for each of their students, when done carefully and accurately, is as essential as choices made by the students themselves. Simply offering task options to students may not be enough to generate motivation. Equally, or even more important, would be to consider whether the tasks selected are relevant to the interests and learning objectives of students, in addition to assessing whether these choices are synchronized with their skills and aligned with their family and cultural values. Motivational theorists claim that the possibility of choosing tasks by students themselves only becomes effective when it satisfies the fundamental psychological needs of autonomy, competence and belonging.
Flag Time is a daily deliberate practice routine where differentiated instruction becomes individualized and positions students as protagonists of their learning, improving their strengths and, at the same time, providing practical reinforcement in areas that need further development, whether to close gaps in learning or to challenge student thinking and understanding. During Flag Time, students work alone or in small groups on tasks specifically designed to promote their individual independence and reflective learning. Teachers prepare the environment to carry out the routine by placing a flag
with the name (and photo or symbol for younger students) of each child in a learning station where a specifically designed activity awaits. This activity considers the strengths and/or interests of the student(s) as well as the skill(s) that need(s) to be practised. Each day, children are strategically reorganized into new groups, which are usually composed of different students who either share the same interest and the same skill to be developed or have different needs to develop and challenges to focus on. The tasks prepared for Flag Time last a maximum of 20 minutes and the role of the teacher at this moment is to observe, evaluate and offer feedback to the students whilst encouraging them to complete their tasks in a collective and individual way. At the end of the Flag Time activity, students self-assess their progress and think about their next learning goals.
The steps for planning and executing Flag Time are summarized below.
1. Assessing and Planning
Monitor students’ learning and work process in order to determine their specific skills and those that each student needs to practice. Design a table with the following data for each student: interests, strengths and academic needs.
2. Assigning and grouping
Think of activities that need to be practiced and that consider the interest or strengths of each student. Use a small flag with the student’s name (and photo or symbol for younger students) to identify the activity created specifically for that child. Group students strategically, so that everyone is properly challenged and, at the same time, is able to successfully complete the activity in 20 minutes.
3. Giving directions
Help students monitor time (20 minutes maximum) using a sand-clock or digital countdown. Make a checklist of what students are expected to do during Flag Time and help them remember the agreements and expectations of high-quality work. These resources will help in the monitoring of activities by the teacher, besides promoting student independence.
4. Learning through Flag Time
Invite students to look for their respective flags and start the activity. The teacher should be always providing support and feedback, as well as explanations to students who have questions. It is imperative to keep the assessment table organized. Only then will the teachers be able to manage their observations and assessments, and easily plan the next Flag Time activity for each student.
5. Daily: Monitoring and Reflection.
Instruct students to use stickers and checklists to reflect on the important aspects of the activity performed during Flag Time. These should be separated into motivation to learn (e.g. I liked it, more or less, I didn’t like it) and types of learning skills used (e.g. visual, auditory, verbal, cognitive, conflict resolution, etc.). Ask each student to explain their thoughts to the teacher or to a peer.
6. Weekly: Individual learning diary.
Invite students to choose one of the activities completed during the week, for example, the one they liked the most or found the most interesting. Ask them to record an audio or write about it in an e-learning diary and to post a photo of the activity followed by a comment. This will serve as evidence of their learning process and academic goals. The teacher can interview the students, asking them about the learning process they experienced during Flag Time and help define strategies for the next academic step. Based on the study by HAIMOVITZ and DWECK (2017), we suggest using the following questions: “What did you learn?” “What was difficult?” “What strategies did you use to try to overcome the challenge encountered?” This data will be extremely important for student self-reflection, for teacher planning and for communication with parents.
Flag Time brings value to deliberate individualized practice
In Flag Time each student practices a single skill in an area of work that was intentionally designed and assigned to them by the teacher, in order to narrow gaps or expand learning. According to the expectation-value theory by Eccles and Wigfield (2002), most individuals will choose not to work on a task if they think they can fail, even if they are interested in it and value it. Because practice requires intense and concentrated effort, students may find that an activity where they need to practice a certain skill is not inherently enjoyable. When students are successful in solving the problems proposed in a task, the benefits of this practice are enhanced. However, when students are frustrated with poorly planned tasks or problems that are disconnected from their reality, they usually lose motivation, do not receive all the benefits of this practice and may become reluctant to perform future tasks. Several conditions must be considered so that deliberate practice becomes more enjoyable whilst still being effective in bringing students closer to the expected performance (see HAMBRICK et al. 2014 and BOALER 2019), such as the design of activities with the previous knowledge and interests of the students in mind, a very important step for setting up Flag Time.
We know that to progress, many students need to have repeated opportunities to practice the same task and, by changing the format of the activity, even if the same skill is being worked on, teachers make practice more stimulating. The design of activities that maximize the success opportunities of each student is an important planning stage for deciding the groupings for Flag Time, as well as which activity will be assigned to each group. Flag Time promotes the development of a growth mindset through stimulating activities that are carefully planned to be in each child’s zone of proximal development by being sufficiently challenging while considering the interests and needs of the child.
Planning deliberate practice in small groups during Flag Time
Unlike many forms of differentiation, with Flag Time, students do not rotate through a series of predefined activities. The surprise of finding their flag and discovering which classmates they will work with, in addition to the possibility of reflecting on how and what has been learned, involves and motivates the students. Flag Time is, therefore, an excellent opportunity for children to develop and improve their social skills because of the alternating composition of students in each learning group working on a specific skill. This generates a spirit of collaboration and mutual challenge. In this environment, a culture is built in which children expect everyone to have strengths and make valuable contributions.
Flag Time provides ample opportunities for teacher feedback
The greatest benefits of practice occur when teachers provide specific and timely feedback to students. Therefore, while students work on the Flag Time activity, the teacher circulates among the groups to help and provide feedback. BONDIE and ZUSHO (2018) believe that when teachers are walking around the classroom, they are open to reflect on why students may or may not be involved in a task and, therefore, are able to give immediate feedback helping the students to remember the purpose of the activity. It is also at this time that teachers can make instructional decisions by responding to perceived learning needs in a precise and efficient manner. Flag Time should be seen as a deliberate and intentional experience, focused on objectives and paired with reflection and feedback.
Development of self-assessment and self-regulation through Flag Time
Flag Time activities are structured in such a way that students can receive immediate feedback from their peers or can refer to a rubric or checklist. Therefore, children do not need confirmation from the teacher when they complete an activity. They reach this conclusion on their own, becoming increasingly autonomous learners. This promotes self-regulated learning skills as part of Flag Time. Also, in line with research that suggests that self-regulated learning can be further developed by maintaining learning journals, students are asked to think metacognitively about how they are learning, and use an electronic journal to describe how they were able to use their skills.
Transforming Flag Time principles to a distance learning environment
We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. – John Dewey. While distance learning does not provide the opportunity for Flag Time to happen for 20 minutes during one moment of every day, the many learning and growth opportunities provided by Flag Time can be envisioned in a distance learning mode.
Providing time every day for individualized deliberate practice
An asynchronous moment for practising a specific skill can be deliberately and intentionally planned for each student. Students can be given a moment in their daily schedules to work on a single skill from any discipline for 20 minutes. It is important to note that not every student will need to work on the same activities, requiring more planning time and more time for assigning individual learning tasks. Linear reasoning, normally used for developing lesson plans, is not sufficient for this practice. This proposal requires the teacher to use strategic reasoning to solve the puzzle, which is the planning of individualized differentiated instruction. These asynchronous activities can also be structured in such a way that students can receive immediate feedback from a rubric or a checklist.
Providing small group live moments
Small group live moments can be designed for 2 to 6 students to practice a skill that may need teacher guidance and/or to receive immediate teacher feedback. Students should be assigned specifically to a group when they need practice in a skill because they may be struggling to master it. They may also be assigned to work on an enrichment activity to learn and practice a new, more challenging skill. This can be organized by teachers for any discipline depending on student need.
As these groups are strategically planned and the teacher carefully chooses activities within each child’s zone of proximal development, students feel confident and able to tackle the assigned tasks. Students should therefore feel more motivated and more comfortable to engage with the group as they become aware of their strengths and those of their peers, in addition to the skills that each needs to develop.
Organizing individual meetings with each student at least once a week
A live meeting between a teacher and a single student should take a maximum of 20 mins and should happen at least once a week. The teacher can determine the course of the conversation based on observations combined with strategic questioning. This conversation should guide the teacher to determine student interest, strengths and needs. It is also an opportunity to discuss which tool or model might help the student to tackle a certain activity, and to give the student feedback and encouragement to help them persevere in learning a specific skill.
Providing opportunities for self-assessment and self-regulation
Students can be given a specific moment to work on an asynchronous activity that supports them in looking at teacher feedback on activities they have submitted and reviewing their work. Students should also have a daily slot of time dedicated to talking or writing about their learning. This is an individual reflection moment. Journaling helps students to be less restrained when expressing themselves. It also gives students time to organize their thoughts and prepare responses, which can give them the extra confidence they need to participate in small group discussions. Journals are a great assessment tool for teachers as they reveal students’ level of understanding, as well as what students require in order
to improve in areas where they may be struggling. This will develop self-regulation skills and support students to become more metacognitive. Live moments, at the end of the day, can also be used for students to share their reflections about their learning and goals related to their next steps, usually facilitated with either a protocol or prompt. For teachers, it is a moment for observing and assessing students’ thinking about their own learning. Flag Time differs from previous attempts at
differentiated instruction in significant ways. First, it focuses on the specific skills that need to be practiced or extended, rather than easier and harder versions of the same task. Second, the interests of the students are designed into learning, enabling students to easily see the value of engaging in the activity. Third, the design of each activity recruits students in their own assessments, fostering self-regulation and motivation. It is important to keep these principles in mind when designing learning experiences for individual students, whether in a face-to-face routine like Flag Time or within a distance learning program.