What Is Differentiation?
Teachers strive to create lessons that will engage and support students. But no matter how spectacular, gamified, technology-based, rigorous, artistic, and creative, no one lesson can target the precise needs of each individual student. One of the main benefits of differentiation in the classroom is that it individualizes instruction within the lesson. Differentiated instruction, or tailoring instruction to meet students’ precise needs, provides each student with the challenge or support they need on the learning continuum.
Meeting each student’s need can be daunting. In an 8th grade classroom, students’ abilities vary wildly, depending not just on factors such as interests and experiences, but also many factors outside of their control, such as type of school, socioeconomic status, family environment, or their first language. How do we engage, nurture, and champion this vast range of learners?
By doing whatever we can! Speaking in general, differentiation is a bundle of the most effective techniques available. Differentiation is student-first, and it will mean different techniques and approaches at different levels and in different subjects. In How To Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms, Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson, a leader in differentiated learning, defines it as, “’shaking up’ what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learned.” Tomlinson’s favorite definition came from one of her undergraduate students who called differentiation, “a sequence of common-sense decisions made by teachers with a student-first orientation.”
In today’s classrooms, we have to account for the lingering impact of the pandemic beyond variables that have existed for as long as there has been school, like family influence, socioeconomics, physical and mental development, and personal well-being. The need for and benefits of differentiation in the classroom are now more vital than ever.
I’m personally invested in sharing the advantages of differentiated instruction not only because it is central to my practice, but also because of my experience as a dyslexic student in the long, long bygone era of the 70s and 80s, before the wizardry of spell-checking personal computers. Not yet diagnosed, I was nearly held back in first grade as a struggling reader. So young, I felt deeply flawed and ashamed of my self-perceived inadequacy. Fortunately, I was promoted to the classroom of my second-grade teacher, Ms. McKennin, who identified my disability, referred me to specialists, supported me, and got my education back on track. Now, not only literate but multilingual no less, I hope you’ll allow it is an amazing turn around that I am writing to you today! One teacher seeing and addressing my specific needs changed my life! That is the magic of being a teacher.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Differentiated Instruction
The advantages far outnumber the disadvantages. Differentiated instruction is a well-established and research-based practice that helps every student, rather than providing one uniform lesson to all. This article is primarily devoted to explaining what these advantages are and how to implement them in your classroom.
The disadvantages of differentiation are that in doing things differently; we will have to question our practice and break out of our comfort zone. Defenders of the status quo may object, as it takes work to provide students with choice and support. However, the time invested on the front end pays huge dividends over the course of a school year. Given the merit of the disadvantages, this section should simply be titled...
Differentiated Instruction Benefits
Tomlinson's research provides a more academically rigorous definition of differentiated instruction as a philosophy of teaching that is based on the premise that students learn best when their teachers accommodate the differences in their readiness levels, interests and learning profiles. This definition tracks perfectly with Piagetian programs, which are based on Jean Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development. Piaget work recognizes accommodation as one of the major ways to process knowledge.
In 2008, John Hattie and his team completed a monumental synthesis that showed differentiating instruction to be more than twice as effective as instruction without it. Research clearly shows, there is no other approach that can have the impact of differentiation.
How to Differentiate
Even if you are hearing this term for the first time, you are likely already practicing it. A student is waiting for their glasses to be made, so you get them a seat up front and print the text in a larger font. You have a library with a range of books available for students who finished their work. During recess, a student passionately talks about competitive car racing, so later you include the sport in a word problem. When students start independent work, you check in with a student who seems to be having difficulty quickly and frequently. All of these are already examples of differentiating. But how can you do more?
Tomlinson identifies four areas where we can differentiate: instruction, grouping, assessment, and classroom culture. I walk through each of these ideas and list ways to differentiate within each area.
Differentiation in Instruction
The benefits of a differentiated process in the classroom include greater student engagement, social and academic inclusivity, and greater confidence for students and teachers. Differentiating instruction allows teachers to both support each student and adhere to standards and curriculum guides. How to do it can be addressed using many different tactics:
- Preloaded Prior Knowledge – Before diving into a concept, provide students with needed background information and activate prior knowledge. Explicitly teach and review key vocabulary terms, and present visual aids and realia. Use graphic organizers like KWL charts to lead discussions and have students share what they already know about the topic. Imagine an ELL student in a civics class. Preloading prior knowledge about the structure of the U.S. Government would be vital.
- Scaffolded Instruction – Guide students in learning new concepts and bridge student learning gaps through scaffolding. Use modeling and fishbowl activities to demonstrate task or expectations. Also implement activities like think-pair-share and think aloud to help students process and reflect on their thinking.
- Choice in Learning – Separate content into must have, ought to have, and nice to have tiers, i.e. essential learning vs. standard curriculum vs. extension and application. Once students have mastered core skills, give students choices about the duration and/or content of their work in forms such as a choice board or tiered instruction. For example, after reading a book students could summarize the story in a comic book adaptation, write a letter to the author, or continue the story on their own.
- Mode of Input – Provide access to dictation technology and/or audiobook or read aloud technology.
- Blended Learning – Refer students to electronic resources to close gaps in learning.
- Peer Teaching – When students have finished stretch activities, have them support peers. This may require coaching the peer teacher first, but it pays off with big SEL gains.
- Centers/Learning Stations – A popular option at the primary level can nonetheless be used at any grade and be incorporated into a vast range of subjects, providing choice, tiered work, and access to students with similar needs.
Differentiation in Grouping
Educators can also differentiate learning for learners in the way that they are grouped. There are different ways to think about grouping that result in highly targeted instruction and flexibility:
- Teacher Support – This model is commonly applied in primary grades with activities such as reading groups. Teachers at any level can pull students together to focus on common learning goals to address students’ varied and specific needs. One of my colleagues uses a “support table” where she sits while students work independently, and she invites some students in particular while allowing others the option to join her group for help.
- Peer Support and Peer Editing – Formalize the groups of peer teaching mentioned in Differentiation for Instruction. I find it helpful to give peer editors specific targets, such as punctuation or supporting ideas, and have them use different colored highlighters to mark up the page.
- Homework Checkers – In these peer groups (usually of two to four people), students review their work before the class corrects as a whole. Within the small groups, students must either come to consensus or ask the teacher for clarification.
- Jigsaw Groups – This is the most powerful grouping strategies from Hattie’s research. Groups learn together about a common topic or similar topics (for example, the Ottoman Empire or civilizations of the Mediterranean). From that group, they break into specialty groups (for example, political systems, economy, religion, and the arts), and then return to their home group to share information and produce a final project.
Differentiation in Assessment
Assessment can also be differentiated so that student performance is being measured equitably. When instruction and assessment are both differentiated, the result is greater than the sum of its parts. Differentiated instruction combined with differentiated assessment helps meet social and emotional learning goals and leads to the activation of student voice and highly effective, targeted instruction. There are a variety of ways to differentiate assessment:
- Formative Assessment – Measure students’ progress with check-ins that don’t count against their grade. This assessment then informs instruction, and teaching based on precisely where the student is on the learning continuum will always be most impactful (again according to Hattie’s research of Piagetian methods and the zone of proximal development).
- Self-Assessment – Hattie ranks this as a top one percent strategy; it costs nothing, requires no extra prep, is a strong SEL pathway, and is highly underused. Supply students a blank copy of your rubric or criteria, or ask them to give themselves a score (out of ten, for example). Students will strive to improve their results and hold themselves accountable.
- Reflection – After self-assessing, there is an excellent opportunity to have students engage in metacognition. Why did they get the score they gave themselves (with your oversight)? What were the strengths and weaknesses of their organization, collaboration, and analysis?
- Level of Questioning – You might create a test bank with question spanning an arch of complexity (structured to open ended) and create different versions of the test with a selection targeted to different learner profiles. Dr. Tomlinson urges us to change complexity, not difficulty and change the quality or nature, not the quantity of questions.
- Assessment Scale and Form – Questions and tasks on your assignment can range from basic recognition to complex, individualized projects such as creating their own version of a product.
Classroom Culture that Supports Differentiated Learning
The culture of the classroom itself can facilitate differentiation so that every student is actively engaged in their learning. Incorporate the following strategies to create a welcoming and safe learning environment that supports differentiated learning.
Differentiation is undeniably essential in supporting and challenging students at varying levels and abilities. Through differentiated instruction, teachers can better meet each student’s needs and create an engaging learning environment that fosters growth.
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