I’ll let you tear into me for starting the new term with such a HUGE topic: Differentiation in the classroom. I can already hear you complain about class size, reduced planning time and being up to your neck in Individualized Learning Plans (ILPs). I can hear you, because I am you: an overworked educator. Still, we need to know what differentiation is all about and how to approach it.
Don’t know what it is? Then, take a moment to carefully read the next paragraph:
“Differentiation means teaching the same content knowledge and skills to all students but using different approaches to meet individual needs. Differentiation is not just for an inclusive classroom- it is intended for all students. When we think of differentiation, we think of offering “different approaches to what students learn, how they learn, and
how they demonstrate what they’ve learned.”
(Cited from Uncommon Sense Teaching: Practical insights in Brain Science to help students Learn by Barbara Oakley, PhD; Beth Rogowsky, EDd, Terrence J. Sejnowski, PhD, 2021)
Deborah Blaz (2016) also notes that differentiated instruction is:
Rigorous - providing challenging instruction that motivates students
Relevant -not more of the same or extra ‘fluff’ but essential learning
Proactive- using methods like hands-on projects
(Cited from Differentiated Instruction: A Guide for World Language Teachers)
When you begin to research differentiation (as I know you will 🙂), 4 main areas will stand-out:
Content ⇒ What you teach
Process ⇒ How students learn
Product ⇒ How students demonstrate their learning
Environment ⇒ Where Learning takes place
You might say, all my students need to meet the learning outcomes I set out. Punto final. But no one said that they all had to get to the goal by using the same route. Each child is different. Some students will sprint to the finish line and others, will plod along at a pace that is comfortable for them. So what I really want to focus on in this blog post, is helping you understand one simple truth: “ Differentiation does not mean segregation”.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying, “Oh he’s really bright. When I give him work, he has it done, like in 5 minutes!” Or maybe we say, “Hmm! That one, gosh…he takes so long to finish writing a sentence. He's really slow when it comes to work.” We start labeling our students exactly as I mentioned earlier, separating ‘the sprinters’ from the ‘plodders’. I’m guilty of it too, so I’m not judging you. But I need to remind myself that labels can stick in a child’s head and then, he/ she may actually begin to believe that the label is true. “I’m too dumb to understand Math’ , ‘I’m just slow at reading’.
Also note, that differentiation is not about who does more or less work in class. Too often, I’ve met educators who are under the belief that they’re differentiating, when they attempt to, and I HATE to say it, ‘dumb down’ the assignment for some students, while giving more worksheets to those who finish before time. What a reward for completing work well! More work (sarcasm in my voice here.)
I admit, differentiation isn’t simple, but at its core, it’s what you want happening in your 21st Century classroom. Why? Because at its core, differentiation is student-centered. It allows your students to learn in a way that is meaningful for them. It allows them to share who they are with you, because to differentiate in the first place, requires getting to know your students and what their interests are. Armed with that info, you can then proceed to plan accordingly.
Let me now give an example as relates to my subject area. I once had to create a French Unit Plan on Health & Fitness. From my student interest data, many seemed to be into football. Thankfully, while browsing YouTube, I found some videos of French footballers talking about what their day was like from start to finish. You could see them training vigorously, the food they were served/ expected to eat and at exactly what time they were expected to be in bed ‘pre-game’ night etc. I used these videos as set inductions and it hooked them, because they were seeing some of the ‘heros’ they so admired, leading healthy lifestyles.
Another important point to note? You can choose when and how to differentiate. With this particular Health & Fitness unit, I chose to differentiate by product for the summative assessment. So please understand that you don’t have to use differentiation in all 4 areas at the same time. Sure, we should always try to vary the way in which we deliver content, but you can simply give your students some flexibility when it comes to demonstrating what they’ve learnt at the end of the topic. So for this Health & Fitness topic, students could have either submitted a brochure with tips on how to stay healthy/ made a video outlining the same health tips/ come up with a chant or radio jingle for the health tips.
Of course, I can only speak from my area of expertise, but I strongly encourage you to research how differentiation can be applied to your subject area. It will demand more planning, but if we believe in the slogan of “No Child Left Behind”, we have to give differentiation the place it deserves in our classrooms.
I leave you with the words of introduction to a cutting-edge book on Differentiation:
“Imagine a school where the motto is “Here, everyone gets smart.” Not just some students. Every student.
Imagine a school where all the students know their learning strengths and how to use them to develop other areas of learning.
Imagine a school where all teachers know their own learning strengths, as well as how to utilize their student’s learning strengths to differentiate learning in their classes”
(Cited from: “Neurodevelopmental Differentiation: Optimizing Brain Systems to Maximize Learning” (Fuller & Fuller, 2021).
Now stop imagining, and start planning.