What Is Differentiation All About?


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Michele Hill

Michele Rispo Hill works at Delsea Regional High School District of Wilmington University in the greater Philadelphia area in the U.S.A. She has been teaching for 25 years with a masters degree in School Leadership and also in Bilingual Studies. She has written articles for... Read more about Michele Hill

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!

Links

Want to know what differentiation is all about?

See Sue Cowley’s new book The Ultimate Guide to Differentiation.

“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.”

 


8 thoughts on “What Is Differentiation All About?

  1. Interesting post, although your article asks teachers to consider the different learning styles which may exist in the classroom yet hyperlinks to a previous Teacher Toolkit post which states learning styles theory is ‘codswallop’ (which it is).

    I agree that differentiation is more about summative than formative assessment, but I think that factors such as washback and teaching-to-the-test will affect whether and how we ‘do’ differentiation in our classrooms. While we might try to consider different needs and the fact that (in spite of the learning styles myth) one size does not fit all, at the end of the course or term most of us will end up asking our learners to sit at individual desks and silently complete test papers. How can differentiation be reconciled with the requirement for standardized tests?

    1. Hi Martin, thanks for the comment. Well-spotted. We aim to publish all teacher views on the site; noted that past articles do dispel the myth – this is posted here for the reader to decide and is hyperlinked. Differentiation and standardised tests? Well, there’s a challenge …

  2. One of the things that my co-teacher and I struggle with when differentiating tests and other math assessments is that we do not want to make it too easy for our struggling students. We want the degree of rigor to remain the same but at the same time do not want the students to freeze up when they see the assessment. The ways that we have done this so far this year with some success was fewer problems per page, two step word problems are broken down into more “bite-size” pieces, and changing some of the language from the “test language” to more student-friendly language. However, I feel as though I am doing a slight disservice to them because when they get to a standardized test they will see it as the way the state designs it. I agree with Martin above about possibly differentiating the standardized tests to better suit our students. Students with disabilities get test accommodations but they do not get a test that is built to their accommodation and when they see a state test they freeze up because of the length or the font size.

    1. Hi Christopher. Thanks for the comment. Have you read End of Average by Todd L Rose? He writes a great deal about standardised tests and alternatives; not sure it will fix the immediacy of differentiation in your classroom, but it may make you feel a bit easier on yourself.

      1. Thank you very much for the insight. Being in a 3rd grade classroom with 12 IEP students and 33 general education students means there are a variety of learning levels. I have students who currently are learning between Kindergarten and 4th grade. So far we have closed many gaps this year but I am always looking for new ways to understand and teach to the students who are struggling. My hope is that each gap is significantly closed by the end of the year. Using boost, blast, HD Word, and LLI have proven very successful. Are there any other reading programs that are fun yet innovative to help close the gap?

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