Differentiation within our classrooms is more important now than ever. Each year, our students arrive in classrooms with a wide variety of needs and strengths. These differences have been intensified with the changes of the past few years. So, how do we meet the needs of all our students? Educators of all grade levels and subjects can differentiate learning for content, process, products, or the learning environment.
True differentiation is not reading or math groups that rarely change. Instead, it is quality over quantity in your assignments and taking a deep dive into how your students are learning.
When differentiating for content, teachers have many different and exciting options. Many educators already use varied texts and resources, as well as structured mini-lessons. I also suggest that you consider using learning contracts and menus with students to give them more freedom and responsibility. Additionally, consider presenting in different modes – can you teach the same content with sound, pictures, models, photographs, artwork, etc.?
Differentiating content also requires the educator to think about providing the student with various support systems. Your students might benefit from having a reading partner, learning how to use note-taking organizers, using highlighted print materials, reading digests of critical ideas, and working with peer or adult mentors.
Differentiating the learning process can be done based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile. For student readiness, the teacher can match the complexity of a task, materials, and support to a student’s current level of knowledge, understanding, and skill. To differentiate based on student interest, the educator can give students choices about which facet of a topic they wish to specialize in or help them link a personal interest to a sense-making goal. The teacher can encourage students to make sense of an idea via a preferred learning style.
Differentiating the products that students create to demonstrate their learning can be one of the most powerful ways of transforming your classroom instruction. When it comes to student readiness, the educator can match the complexity of resources, coaching from peers or teachers, the sophistication of models, access to support in-home language, opportunities for in-process feedback, and range of complexity in rubrics. For student interest, a teacher can give students choices about topics that a student explores or applies essential KUDs (knowledge, understanding, and do’s) or student-generated criteria for success that supports expanded learning in an interesting area. Lastly, for differentiation based on learning profile, an educator can encourage students to work alone or with a team, opting to take an analytical, practical, or creative approach to a topic and giving a choice of mode of expressing knowledge, ideas, and skills.
Differentiation will take some classroom management skills. It is essential to share the rationale for differentiation with students and parents to increase buy-in. When giving instructions to multiple groups, using task cards or sheets can be helpful. Always plan differentiated lessons for a time frame just under your students’ independent attention spans. Make sure to plan for students to have ‘anchor activities’ to complete with independent work. Make sure that a wall chart (this can be digital!) shows students where to be at all times. Finally, make sure that you have a plan for what students should do for help when working with a group of students. You might want to have a student’s assistant of the day or other helpers for this.
Differentiation is something that all of us teachers do every day and something that we can learn to do better with some practice. I suggest reading the book How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms, 3rd Ed. 2017 by C.A. Tomlinson.
Karen Lauritzen is an IEA member from Post Falls