Differentiation is a word that is used often in education — but I worry there is a lack of consensus on what it means, it’s purpose and what it looks like in the classroom. Here is an attempt to distill the essential elements down to four buckets or key areas:
- Expectations and attitudes about students, getting to know students
- Purposeful and clear goals, activities, instructions, assessments
- Constant collection of evidence, feedback and goal setting by teacher and students
- Flexible grouping based on what students need at that moment to reach the goal
First, without teachers breaking down our assumptions about “smart students” or “my best student” or “my weakest student” and without students feeling like their teacher is invested in their success as an individual, differentiation is likely to have little impact. Read more about this idea here.
Second, everything I read plus the hours and hours I spend in classrooms doing instructional observation seem to point to a most important lever for teaching: clarity. What is the goal? Is it clear to the students? Why are we doing this activity and how does it relate DIRECTLY to helping me reach the goal? We often get caught up in trying to make a classroom activity hands-on or engaging that it becomes only tangentially related to the goal.
Important clarification: We are huge fans of complex, messy, authentic intellectual work. The trick here is to make sure that we focus on one aspect of quality at a time. We can layer on skills, knowledge, understanding, habits of mind, etc. But each needs to be taught and focused on separately. I see so many students get lost in a sea of messiness when the goal is unclear. Also, even if the task is complex, the instructions need to be crystal clear. This is also a huge area of confusion for students. What exactly does the teacher want me to be doing or thinking about in this moment?
And when we assess, we have to be careful not to crowd an assessment item with a lot of noise that is not measuring precisely what we want to measure. We have to show students what quality work looks like. And not so good work. It shouldn’t be a mystery they are trying to solve. Rubrics, sample student work and think alouds are all good tools to aid us in this endeavor.
Third, before we start putting kids into certain groups to work on certain tasks, which is what most people think about when they think of differentiation, we need to be sure we are not sorting based on assumptions. That’s where collecting data becomes key. Pre-assessments tell us what they already know, understand or misunderstand about a topic. Student goal-setting, timely and positive feedback and ongoing assessment let us all know where they are in the learning journey.
Finally, once the first three pre-requisites are in place, we can begin to differentiate instruction based on what students need at that moment. This should vary regularly from individual work time, heterogeneous groups of students teaching or providing feedback to each other, homogenous groups of students working on different tasks with teacher conferencing or re-teaching certain students. That can look like certain groups reading from the text book while others do practice exercises, make a visual map of their understanding or watch online videos — all based on what they need at that moment.
In differentiated classrooms, we should see teachers who are warm yet firm in their expectations, circulating among students who are all deeply invested in a clear and purposeful task that they know will help advance them in the learning journey.