What does differentiation really mean?

Lately, and rightly so, there seems to be a lot of buzz around differentiation, personalized learning, personalization, individualization… and many folks are trying to distinguish among them.

The MAJOR distinction, it seems, is whether or not the goals of students remain the same for all students. Although we at Ed to Save the World hope for a system that allows for some divergent goals related to students’ passions, we are very cautious about the ethical implications around equality and equity for having different goals for different students. How do we decide? Who gets “less or more” rigorous goals?

After a meeting with teachers who support students with special needs, I drafted the following principles about differentiation based on the work of Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson, Dr. Lynn Erickson, Dr. Susan Brookhart and Dr. John Hattie.

Differentiation Principles

  1. Tips, principles and strategies for differentiation are typically good for the learning of all students.
  1. The goals for all students should remain the same. It’s how they get there and sometimes how they show their learning that is differentiated.
  1. Before even considering changing the learning goals for certain students we need to be sure we have done all we can to help them reach the goals.
  1. The first step is shifting to a conceptually-based learning environment where students are guided to discover the relationships between concepts, supported by facts and specific contexts. Most students, especially those who traditionally do poorly in school, thrive in an environment that relies less on recall and memorization and more on deep understanding and application of learning in unique ways.
  1. The second step is to collect daily evidence of individual student understanding through formative assessment and adjust instruction accordingly, such as re-teaching certain students and providing extension activities to others.
  1. The third step is to ensure assessments measure precisely what it is we want to measure. It is important to take out all of the “noise” that often clouds an assessment question and provide accommodations for students with specific learning difficulties. For example, if there is a lot of text on an exam (and of course, reading is not an essential learning goal for the unit), the text can be read aloud to a student with dyslexia.
  1. The fourth step is to provide specific, positive feedback on each students’ progress toward the learning goal. Teachers must consider the point of view of the student and think about what information will be most useful in motivating them and moving them along in the learning process. For example, if a student typically has trouble writing a paragraph and the task was to write an essay, instead of saying “you are far away from writing an essay”, communicating the increase in growth on writing a single paragraph if that is evident in the work sample.
  1. The fifth step is to vary the means of instruction such as using visuals, audio, hands-on, calisthenic activities to increase the chances of students grasping the learning.

What do you think?



Categories: News and Trends, Stage 2: Active Processing, Stage 2: Joyful and Efficient, Stage 3: Concept Based Curriculum and Instruction, Testing and Assessments

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