Once you have enough information to clearly determine the knowledge and skills students already possess, you quickly realize that you can’t teach exactly the same lesson to all students.
- Some students need a full lesson and repeated practice to master the objectives.
- Some students can learn the objective in half the class time.
- Some students have fully mastered the objective and need something more complex to further their learning.
Early in my teaching career, the two latter groups of students really got the shaft. I made them sit through a lesson and demonstrate learning they had already mastered. Then, to keep them busy, I’d assign them more of the same.
What Differentiation is Not
Differentiation does not mean permanent groupings. When you have a permanent “high” group, those students may miss important objectives they have not yet mastered. Students in a permanent “low” group may have areas of strength that need to be challenged.
Differentiation is not an excuse to have students work in complete independence. When I was in school, my teachers had me “work ahead”, submitting assignments at my own pace and rarely interacting with me. Teachers have a responsibility to help students who have already mastered grade-level objectives reach their learning potential. Students who have mastered grade level content deserve teacher interaction and facilitation. For more information on teaching gifted students, click here.
Differentiation is not the sole responsibility of learning specialists. Learning specialists tend to serve large numbers of students in multiple classrooms – each with a different schedule. Students deserve much more frequent differentiation.
Differentiation is not a complete second or third set of lesson plans. Students who have demonstrated knowledge/skills on a pretest do not necessarily skip an entire lesson. Rather, they receive the lesson at a different level of sophistication.
Examples of Differentiation in Math
In math, we are working on graphing ordered pairs. Many students have experience graphing coordinates where letters are placed on the x-axis and numbers on the y-axis, as they are in the game of Battleship. Students are introduced to the (x,y) ordered pair and they demonstrate the ability to graph such coordinates.
Other students have graphed coordinates but have difficulty remembering to first move along the x-axis. Those students quickly master (re-master?) the concept. As an extension, I ask these students predict what would happen if the x-coordinate was doubled. What if the x-coordinate was negated? What happens if we do the same to y-coordinates? Can they use math vocabulary to explain their reasoning?
Another student was able to easily explain effects of changing x- and y-coordinates. I pulled him aside, helping him connect equations such as y = 3x + 2 to ordered pairs and the graphing of lines. I then asked him to play around with different multiplies until he could explain what happens to a line when the multiple changed.
Same basic lesson – but at varying levels of sophistication.
Examples of Differentiation in Literacy
Students recently wrote Realistic Fiction stories. A couple students were able to, in a short amount of time, create a story that met all unit objectives. As most students continued their rough drafts, I asked those two students to conference together, discussing how their stories might incorporate symbolism. To what extent does each story have a message? A dynamic character? How would the story change if the character was given one magical power?
In reading, similar skills can be taught with varying levels of text sophistication. While some students are learning to use headings and paragraphs to understand nonfiction texts, others can study essays of Nobel Prize winners or famous speeches. How did those authors organize their work without clear headings?
How to Differentiate
1. Start slowly. You’ll quickly burn out if you try to differentiate every lesson all by yourself. Aim for one or two lessons each unit and add a few each year.
2. Work with colleagues. Working together, groups of teachers can add to the files of differentiated resources. If you have a teaching partner or colleague who teaches the same units at the same time, have one teacher take students who need the regular lesson and the other teacher can take those who need extensions. The next day, one teacher takes those who need re-teaching or pre-teaching while the other teacher follows up with the regular and/or extension group. If learning specialists are involved, the differentiation is even more powerful.
3. Flip lessons. Videos take time to make, but they can be used over and over again. Video lessons do not replace the teacher – but they can get groups of students started while the teacher is working with another group.
When videos are used in the classroom, groups of students can watch them together, pause, reflect, and synthesize ideas. Students are then given a project, a mini-project, or a task to complete. Be clear what students need to accomplish and show the teacher when he/she arrives.
Differentiated instruction takes practice. It requires new structures of classroom management. How do you manage differentiated instruction?
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