Differentiation in a Classroom
More than they are similar in height, activities, personalities, or food preferences, children of the same age are not all the same when it comes to learning. Children share many traits with adults because they are all young, yet they differ significantly. Our similarities make us human, but our differences give us our uniqueness. Only student similarities tend to take center stage in a classroom with little individualized instruction. In a differentiated classroom, similarities are recognized and worked upon, while student differences are significant for teaching and learning.
At its most basic level, diversifying instruction is “shaking up” what happens in the classroom to give students a variety of methods for absorbing knowledge, understanding concepts, and communicating what they have learned. For each student to learn effectively, a differentiated classroom offers many ways to acquire knowledge, process or make sense of concepts, and generate products.
The method of teaching and learning is frequently more unitary than differentiated in classrooms. For instance, first graders might hear a story and then depict the story’s beginning, middle, and end in drawings. All of them experience the same content and engage in the same sense-making or processing activity, even though they may choose to depict different features of the elements. Each student in a kindergarten class may visit one of four centers to perform the same weekly tasks. Students in the fifth grade can take the same fractions lesson and complete the same homework assignment. Middle or high school students might watch a film and listen to a lecture to better grasp a scientific or historical topic. They will read the same chapter on the same schedule, finish the same lab exercises or end-of-chapter questions, and take the same quiz. Such classrooms are common, ordinary, and mostly uniform.
Parents and most teachers have distinct mental ideas of these types of classrooms. It can be challenging to picture what a differentiated classroom would be like after spending years receiving undifferentiated instruction. Can we go from “single-size instruction” to differentiated instruction to better meet the varying requirements of our children, ponder educators? We must first dispel several misconceptions before we can respond to this question.
Differentiated Instruction: What It Is NOT
Differentiated instruction is NOT the same thing as “individualized instruction.”
Teachers used “individualized instruction” decades ago to respect kids’ learning differences. The concept was to design a separate, personalized lesson each day for each of the 30-plus pupils in a single classroom. For instance, it didn’t take long for teachers to become worn out because every kid was expected to require a distinct reading assignment. The second flaw in this approach was the need to segment or break down instruction into skill fragments to “match” each student’s precise entry level into the curriculum with the upcoming lesson. As a result, learning became largely meaningless and irrelevant to those expected to master the curriculum.
While it is true that varied instruction can provide various learning opportunities and unquestionably promotes treating each student individually, it does not entail giving each learner a unique assignment. It also emphasizes meaningful learning and ensures all kids are exposed to challenging concepts. Differentiation resembles a one-room classroom more than personalization. This instructional paradigm acknowledged the need for the teacher to work occasionally with the entire class, occasionally with small groups, and occasionally with individuals. These changes were crucial to advancing each student’s knowledge and abilities while fostering a sense of camaraderie among the class members.
Instruction that is differentiated is NOT disorganized.
The common, terrifying event that most teachers recall from their first year of teaching is losing control of their student’s behavior. The stage at which a teacher becomes confident and at ease in running the daily operations of the classroom serves as a benchmark for their professional development. For many teachers, one of the biggest barriers to creating a flexible classroom is the fear of going back to being unclear about “control of student behavior.” But here’s a shocker: teachers who differentiate instruction swiftly point out that they now exercise more leadership in their classrooms than ever before. Additionally, student behavior is noticeably more productive and concentrated.
Teachers who differentiate instruction need to be more active leaders than those who only offer one learning method. They frequently have to manage and supervise the various activities while also assisting kids in understanding how Differentiation can encourage greater growth and success for everyone in the class and helping them establish ground rules for productive work in classroom routines.
However, they are not disorganized or unruly. Effectively differentiated classrooms involve deliberate student activity and occasionally purposeful student discussion. On the contrary, differentiated classrooms and any classroom that values student thinking include “orderly flexibility” as a defining characteristic. According to research, “disorderly” or “restrictive” environments do not foster meaningful learning. (Bransford & Darling-Hammond, 2007).
Differentiated education is NOT merely another means of distributing students into uniform groups.
When we think of homogenous classrooms, the bluebird, cardinal, and buzzard reading groups undoubtedly come to mind. A predator typically stayed a predator, and a cardinal remained forever. In this system, buzzards almost always collaborated on skill-focused activities with other predators, whereas cardinals typically worked at “higher levels” of thought. The assignment of students to groups was predictable and almost always made by the teacher.
Contrarily, the use of flexible grouping, which accommodates children who are strong in some areas and weaker in others, is a sign of an effective differentiated classroom. For instance, a student might excel at reading and analyzing literature but struggle with spelling, excel in map reading but struggle to spot trends in historical events, or be quick at arithmetic word problems but careless with computation. Flexible grouping teachers also know that some pupils may start a new task slowly before advancing remarkably quickly, while others will learn steadily but more slowly. They are aware that, while it sometimes makes sense for students to establish their working groups, other times it makes more sense to assign students to groups so that assignments are matched to student requirements. Others typically perform better in pairs or triads, while other pupils prefer or benefit from working independently.
The objective of a differentiated classroom is to have kids routinely work with a wide range of peers on projects that are carefully crafted to build on each student’s strengths and support their areas of need. The grouping of pupils in such a diverse classroom is best described as “fluid.” For further information on flexible grouping, see the Appendix.
Differentiated education goes beyond simply “tailoring the same suit of clothes.”
Many teachers believe they provide differentiated instruction when they allow students to volunteer to answer questions, grade some students more or less harshly depending on their effort and perceived level of ability, or allow students to read or complete homework if they complete a class assignment early. These adjustments undoubtedly represent a teacher’s awareness of the various requirements of students, and as such, they represent progress toward Differentiation. These strategies help to address student variability, but they are typically insufficient to effectively address serious learning challenges because they are “micro-differentiation” or “tailoring” instances.
The chance to respond to an additional complex question is not a sufficient challenge if the initial assignment is far too simple for an advanced learner. Allowing a student who is having trouble learning to skip a test question because he didn’t comprehend the material accomplishes nothing to close the student’s learning gap. Being “easier on her” when grading her assignment avoids the need for additional time and support to master foundational content if the information in the basic assignment is simply too complex for the learner before she can assimilate necessary background information or language skills. In conclusion, it is probably less effective to try to stretch a garment that is far too tiny or try to tuck and gather a much too large garment than buying clothing that fits properly. To put it another way, in some cases, tiny changes to a lesson may be all that is required to make it “work” for a student, but in many other cases, the mismatch between the learner and the lesson is too big to be properly addressed in any way other than by completely rewriting the course.
Differentiated instruction does NOT only benefit extreme cases.
Undoubtedly, scaffolding will be necessary for kids who have identifiable learning difficulties like autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, intellectual disabilities, visual impairment, and so on for them to progress academically as they should.
Similar to how they should, students who absorb information quickly, analyze critically, and easily draw connections between different subject areas will frequently require more difficult tasks. Students just picking up the language used in class will often need assistance as they work to grasp the subject matter and the language used to communicate it. However, there are always a few “in the middle” kids in almost every class with varying degrees of difficulty with the material they are trying to learn.
Some students struggle with particular instructions or topics but have some knowledge of a chunk of a lesson or unit. Some students’ experiences away from the classroom harm their ability to focus or finish tasks. Some students are poised to “take flight” with a concept that has previously been beyond their capabilities, and they need support and encouragement to ensure their launch is successful. Every student gains from being on the teacher’s radar and observing indications that the educator is aware of their growth and makes plans with their success in mind.
Differentiated instruction is what it IS.
Personalized learning IS proactive.
The teacher develops lessons that offer a range of approaches to “get at” and communicate learning in a varied classroom on the presumption that different students have different needs. Although the teacher may still need to adjust instruction for some students, the likelihood that these experiences will be a good fit for most students is higher since the teacher is aware of the diverse student needs in the classroom and makes learning options to those requirements. To engage and challenge the entire spectrum of students in the classroom, effective Differentiation is often created to be as robust as possible.
When using a one-size-fits-all strategy, the instructor is forced to make impromptu changes anytime it becomes clear that some of the students for whom the lesson was designed are not responding to it.
For instance, reading is a problem for many pupils across all school levels. These students require a curriculum providing consistent, integrated, organized, and supported chances to advance their reading proficiency. While giving students both oral and written instructions for a task may be considerate and beneficial in the short term so that they can hear what they might not be able to read with confidence, their fundamental reading issues are unlikely to improve unless the teacher makes proactive plans to help students acquire the specific reading skills required for success in that particular content area.
Differentiated education DOES emphasize quality above quantity.
Many teachers mistakenly believe that differentiating instruction entails assigning different amounts of work to various pupils. For instance, a teacher might give advanced readers two book reports while giving struggling readers just one. Or a math student who is having trouble might only need to do computation problems, while more advanced math students might need to finish computation problems and a few word problems.
Such differentiation strategies might appear fair, yet they are frequently useless. Without extra contemporaneous support in reading and analyzing the content, one book report could be too demanding for a difficult learner. Another possibility is that a kid who would have no trouble carrying out what happened in the novel may struggle to write a three-page report. If the advanced reader finds that writing one book report is “too easy,” doing “twice as much” of the same thing is unlikely to fix the issue but may also come off as punishment. When a student has proven their knowledge of one arithmetic concept, they are ready to cease working on that concept and need to move on to the next concept. In general, changing an assignment’s character to meet the demands of the actual student will be more beneficial than simply increasing or decreasing its amount.
Assessment forms the foundation of differentiated education.
Teachers who know that the methods they use to teach and learn must be suitable for their pupils actively seek opportunities to get to know them better. They view individual talks, classroom discussions, student work, observation, and formal evaluation as means to learn more about what each learner responds to. What they discover serves as a springboard for developing lesson plans that support students in realizing their potential and talents.
Diagnostic pre-assessment is frequently conducted as a unit begins to give insight into individuals’ unique needs and interests about the unit’s goals in a differentiated classroom, where assessment is no longer primarily something that happens after a unit to ascertain “who got it.” The teacher evaluates the students’ evolving degrees of readiness, interests, and learning styles continuously and in various ways before creating learning experiences based on the most up-to-date knowledge of the student’s needs. The goal of culminating projects—or other types of “final” or summative assessment—is to find a way for each student to share what they have learned during the unit most effectively.
Differentiated education DOES adopt various content, method, and product philosophies.
At least three curricular components are addressed by teachers in every classroom: content (what students learn), process (how they process ideas and information), and product (how they show what they have learned). Chapters 12, 13, and 14 include in-depth discussions of these topics.
By distinguishing these three components, teachers can give various methods to what pupils learn, how they acquire it, and how they exhibit what they’ve learned. The commonality among the various strategies is that they are designed to assist each student’s development per predetermined learning objectives, pay attention to pacing, and provide other supports required to improve learning for both the class as a whole and for each student.
Student-centered instruction DOES involve Differentiation.
The foundation of differentiated instruction is that learning experiences are most successful when they are interesting, relevant, and engaging to pupils. That concept implies that not all students will always find the same learning opportunities equally engaging, pertinent, and intriguing. Additionally, differentiated instruction recognizes that not all students have the same learning foundations at the beginning of a given study and that subsequent information, skill, and understanding must be built on earlier knowledge, skill, and understanding. In academically diverse classes, teachers who diversify instruction aim to give each student a properly challenging learning experience. These educators know that a job that presents no challenge to some students is often excruciatingly difficult for others.
Additionally, differentiated teachers know the importance of fostering students’ independence as learners. Sometimes it’s simpler for a teacher to tell pupils everything, especially in large classrooms, rather than to help them develop their independence of thought, accept considerable responsibility for their education, and develop a feeling of pride in their work. Learners in a differentiated setting must actively make and assess decisions that advance their development. Because students are self-directing, a teacher can work with different groups or individuals for parts of the day by teaching them how to work wisely and share responsibility for classroom success. Additionally, it better equips students for both the present and the future.
Whole-class, small-group, and individualized training are all combined in differentiated instruction.
Every classroom has instances when whole-class instruction is the most effective and efficient option. For instance, it helps create shared understandings and offers the chance for discussion and evaluation to foster a sense of community. Figure 1.1 shows how the pattern of instruction in a differentiated classroom could be represented by mirror images of a wavy line, with students coming together as a whole group to begin a study, dispersing to pursue learning in small groups or individually, gathering again to share and plan for further investigation, dispersing once more for more work, gathering once more to share or review, and so on.
Figuring 1.1. Instructional Process in a Differentiated Classroom
It is “organic” and dynamic to differentiate education.
Teaching evolves in a differentiated classroom. Together, students and teachers are lifelong learners. Teachers may be more knowledgeable than students on the topic, but they are also constantly learning about how their students learn. Continuous student input is required to improve learning opportunities and make them useful for every learner. Teachers keep an eye on how well students are learning and adapt as necessary. Additionally, teachers know they may always adjust even though the learner/learning match isn’t always ideal. This is a key factor in why varied instruction frequently results in better learner/learning matches than the approach to instruction that emphasizes that one assignment works effectively for all students.
Additionally, teachers in differentiated classrooms are fully aware that every hour of teaching and every day in the classroom can reveal another approach to improve the learning environment for its students rather than thinking of themselves as individuals who “already differentiate instruction.” These educators do not regard Differentiation as “a strategy” or something to be used sometimes or during free time. Instead, it permeates every aspect of the classroom. They blend what they can learn about Differentiation from various sources with their professional intuition and knowledge base to do whatever it takes to reach each student rather than seeking out or adhering to a differentiation recipe.
A Framework to Consider
Keep this framework in mind as you read on to learn how to differentiate education in classrooms with varying academic backgrounds:
In a classroom where instruction is differentiated, the teacher proactively organizes and implements a variety of approaches to material, process, and result in response to and anticipation of student variances in preparedness, interest, and learning requirements.
As you try to differentiate instruction in your academically diverse classroom, the explanations and examples in this book will help you fill out this new framework. Let’s take a closer look at the justification for distinction.
Carol Ann Tomlinson.; How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms Account: ns017578.main.eds
Tomlinson, C. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed ability classrooms. (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
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Respond to the following discussion item in 75-100 words.
Comment upon how this statement from pp. 5 –6 of the Tomlinson text featured this week relates to what should occur in your classroom and your school.
“Differentiated instruction is dynamic: Teachers monitor the match between learner and learning and make adjustments as warranted. And while teachers know that sometimes the learner/learning match is less than ideal, they also understand that they can continually make adjustments. …. Differentiation…is a way of life in the classroom.
[The teacher] does not seek or follow a recipe… but combines what she can learn about Differentiation from various sources to her professional instincts and knowledge base to do whatever it takes to reach out to each learner.”
Tomlinson, C. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed ability classrooms. (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
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