What does differentiation actually mean?
You have heard the word a million times before and you are pretty sure that differentiation means changing the way you teach to reach all the learners in your class. But what does that exactly mean?
Here’s the low-down on what differentiated teaching is and what it isn’t.
What it’s not!
I used to think that differentiated instruction was meeting the individual needs of a student through individual instruction and ‘remedial’ practices. Differentiated teaching is not:
1… about individual instruction
Although there will be times that individual instruction happens in the classroom, it is not the goal of a differentiated classroom. Differentiated teaching and learning incorporates individual, small group and whole group teaching. Many people believe that if you are teaching to the whole group or a small group that the needs of individual students are not being met. On the contrary, whole group and small group instruction can be very successful if followed up with differentiated activities that promote mastery.
2… freedom of choice completely
Students should have an input on instruction, but they do not drive the topics and curriculum. Differentiated learning includes student voice and student agency, but there are limitations. Ultimately the teacher is responsible for ensuring that students meet the standards, therefore they need to give boundaries for student choice.
3… about more or less
Many teachers believe that differentiating means they should adjust the workload of students based upon ability. More doesn’t mean better. Altering projects and assignments that causes students to reach their potential for growth is the best approach.
4… a solution to all student learning difficulties
A differentiated classroom provides opportunities for student success, but not a guarantee that all students will succeed. Students bring with them individual needs – (sometimes labelled as learning styles) and barriers to learning that may make student achievement challenging, even in a differentiated classroom.
What it is!
I have since learned that differentiated instruction allows for multiple pathways to ensure that students have equal and appropriate access to curriculum; with a variety of classroom instruction techniques and assessments. Differentiated teaching:
1… should be proactive
Teachers should anticipate the learning needs of students and tailor lessons to fit. The learning opportunities should be robust enough to challenge every student in the class, but not so challenging that students are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated and shut down.
2… often involves group work, but not always
An effective differentiation strategy is to group students heterogeneously, not homogeneously. Students can bring both strengths and weaknesses to the activity and work together for the benefit of all students. There are times when whole-group teaching is effective and can be followed up with small group and individual activities designed to meet students’ needs.
3… is more about formative assessment than summative assessment
In a differentiated classroom, you don’t wait until the end of a unit to see who mastered the information. Assessments should happen all throughout the learning process. This style of teaching allows the teacher to design and adapt lessons that make the most of every student’s potential and attend to weaknesses as they arise.
4… should have multiple activities and assessments
One size does not fit all and there should be a range of activities and assessments that allow students of all levels to demonstrate mastery of information. Clear objectives help to create meaningful assessments that are tailored to individual students’ needs.
5… should be student centred
It’s no secret that effective learning experiences are based upon student interests and filled with engaging and relevant activities. Teachers who differentiate, build upon the diversity of student’s learning foundation. They modify and adapt activities/assessments to push students for maximum growth while including opportunities for student voice.
Our students come to us with important differences and learning needs. As a teacher, if differentiated learning helps to address those differences and sets the foundation for success for every student, and in turn, those who embrace differentiated teaching methods, experience success just the same!
“This book answers that question so that teachers feel confident to say this is differentiation. There is a great deal of confusion around what the term differentiation means, what different kinds of differentiation look like, and concerns about how differentiation can add to a teachers workload. This book passionately outlines the pedagogical necessity of differentiation, and is also a highly practical and realistic guide to doing differentiation in a real-life classroom situation.”