Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What Exactly Is Differentiation?

Meeting the needs of all students. Modifying instruction so all students learn. Providing for student choice when completing an assignment. All of these, and others were given as basic definitions to the question of what is differentiation as the weekly #edchat got underway on Twitter.

Our topic this week was to try to come to an understanding of what a differentiated classroom looks like. For me, this was one of the most engaging discussions because there is so many opinions as to what true differentiation looks like.

Here is just some of what was said:
  • Today I felt less lonely as a teacher and see that lots of the ideas I struggle with alone we are all struggling with as a group of professionals. Differentiation looks like a set of beliefs about how students learn and how students teach that can change our approach in the everyday classroom work towards more inclusive and more creative activities and teaching objectives. I believe it is best achieved with good classroom management as a basis and let's not forget school or staff's support. It doesn't work that well if I use it in one subject and the other teachers don't, for example.
  • Differentiation is synonymous with equity. It is about giving each student what he or she needs to be successful. It is about our mission and vision for schools. Do we want to reach ALL STUDENTS or some students? If we are differentiating effectively then we are attempting to reach them all. The challenge for schools is that we are too traditional in many cases and are under the unfortunate misconception that students will all learn at the same pace. It is about getting students to reach academic standards at their own pace. For some this could mean taking college courses in grade 11 and for others it could mean taking college courses later.
  • Differentiation involves first- identifying where students are with good quality surveys (interest, learning styles, MI, right/left brain...) as well as pre-assessments to identify prior knowledge so that we can build on that. Classroom learning is driven by quality assessment- we can then differentiate the process (the how) and products (giving students choice and variety in how they can show what they learned).
  • Differentiation is a convenient umbrella term that means different things to different people. Regardless of how one defines differentiation, there can be general consensus that teaching so all children can learn is a good thing.
  • In general, I find providing choices for formative and summative assessments goes a long way toward allowing every child to demonstrate success. In addition, I try to provide multiple ways for the same information to be understood - visually, auditorially, kinesthetically, etc...The trick comes in combining brain-based, best-practices, differentiated instruction within the confines of a rigid, antiquated system which values numbers and standardized formal assessment. Teaching students how to think, how to problem-solve, how to attack difficult questions or problems, how to express their thoughts clearly and succinctly, and how they learn best, should be goals of all educators. When students are adequately armed with the above skills, they will be able to succeed in any situation or learning environment.
  • When planning DI one must have a repertoire of teach strategies, know students, identify variety of instructional activities, and identify ways to assess.
You can read the rest of the comments here. And the archive here.

There were several interesting points..

Differentiation is not specific to one group. In the past I have read and been told that differentiation applies only to "labeled" students. I even have a book on my shelf called Differentiated Instruction which stresses the needs for DI in the Special Education classroom. DI is not just for Special Ed, gifted, ESL, whatever label you want to apply. Its for all students.

Several people talked about interest surveys, inventories, studies....whatever you want to call them. While these might work they are not the best (in my opinion) indicators of how a student really learns or their particular learning style. The only way I found was to actually take time to observe my kids. Talk to them, ask them questions. Instead of handing them a survey on the first day of school why not just plain ask them how they learn best. If you are working with younger kids present various types of learning activities where they have to demonstrate different learning styles and see which kids gravitate toward which styles. The point is to get to know and connect with your students. Then you can understand how they learn best.

Can you meet the needs of every single student you teach? If you are teaching 5 kids, 10 kids even, probably. More than likely if you are a middle school or high school teacher you could be teaching over 100 kids. You have to realize that you can't do something different for everyone, no matter what your administration tells you. (I say that because mine always told me I had to provide different instruction for the over 130 students I taught. Oh and I only saw them for 50 mins a day. Yours may be telling you the same.) So what do you do? Shake things up. Once you understand your students (by connecting with them) you know one day you might need to do an activity that gets them up and moving around. And the next day an activity where the students have to create. And the next day an activity where the students are reading and discussing with their peers. You can't walk into the classroom day in and day out teaching exactly the same way. First, that's boring. Second, you are going to reach more students when you vary your instruction. Have fun with it! Dress up, sing, draw, kids love it when they see their teacher as human. (And they might just learn lots!)

Several participants brought up the fact that not only instruction needs to be differentiated but assessments as well. Student choice is an important part of any classroom, not just ones that are focused on DI. When doing and assignment or project. Offer student choice in the product. Wanna create a blog, great! Wanna write a rap, record it and post it to the class wiki? Awesome! Wanna create a logo using Photoshop? Super! You may not think of all the ways students could demonstrate their learning and you know, that's ok. Let the students tell you how they would like to demonstrate it. I bet they will show you, through their product how they like to learn.

Finally I want to share with you an amazing activity that one of my friends, Russ (@RussGoerend) is doing in his 6th grade Language Arts/Social Studies classroom. For me (and several others) I think it is an activity demonstrates what true Differentiated Instruction is while still adhering to the mandated curriculum. Head over to his blog and read more about Skills Based Journaling

What do you think? What do you do or have you seen in terms of DI that works? Is there such a think as DI? Should we even be concerned with it or is it something that is a major factor in the classroom?

Imaged used under a CC License from Flickr. View the original here.


  1. I definitely agree with what everyone said at edchat. A lot of times, educators only differentiate in special ed classes, career and technical classes or dropout prevention programs, but all kids deserve to learn in a way that makes sense to them.

    That said, I can see how hard it would be to differentiate in the current school model with so many students. Maybe it's time for a change ...

  2. You have a gift for capturing the essence of each chat.

    I would also enocurage teachers and administrators to shake things up in how they structure and schedule the school day, classes, and grade levels. PLC work gives us an idea of our strenghts and weaknesses as teams; why not embrace the idea that the kids are all our kids and switch classrooms when it comes time to teach & differentiate something that's a passion and talent for you while your teammate does the same next door?

  3. Loved the blog, loved the #edchat.
    On the other hand, there was still more to my message posted above... I don't think differentiation works everywhere, for all students, all teachers and in all circumstances (as you very well point out when classes are overcrowded or schools are unsupportive, for example).
    I do believe it is worth giving it a try and keep moving in that direction, starting from your own communities realities.
    Thanks again for your time, attention and knowledge.

  4. I really enjoyed this post on DI. You manage to speak to the obstacles of using DI in a "regular" classroom.
    Kids are no different than adults in that we crave variety and want to feel successful at what we do. Students should be able to demonstrate their learning in the best way they know how. Sometimes the school day gets in the way of the kind of instruction and learning that can take place.
    I allowed the students to plan the schedule for the day. It became a class debate about what would work best for the entire class and they had to reach a consensus before they could continue.
    When a schedule was finally agreed upon, I found the students focussed during the class. They were motivated and I could see that they felt empowered. When someone complained, the class would remind that student that this is what they agreed to.
    I was able to do something like this because I was in a small school, with a small number of students.
    Like Pam, I will continue to try using DI in my classroom. It has its place amongst the number of strategies a teacher must use in order to reach their students.

    Thanks for the post. I will be reading this blog closely in the future.

  5. Wow, this is great reading thanks for the summary.

    I believe there are 2 main issues with DI.

    *First - the school system has been basically the same structure for decades - we need to think out of the box......and it's starting....

    *Second - I have always believed, (I know probably idealistically) that many of DI and educational issues would be part way solved if the student to teacher ratio was more like 1:10 with mixed classes.

    Yep I know this is 'way out of the box' and probably way out of the finance and admin box too but this is the way we need to be starting to think in my opinion.

    Just imagine for a minute - no financial restraints - what could be achieved with a 1:10 ratio !!!!!


  6. I teach kindergarten children and over time have been exposed to all of these arguments/discussions. Fortunately, K is active, constantly changing in its tasks, and presents the learning and assessment every step of the way throughout the day. We do not have the "projects" so many people speak of. We actually try to establish a sense of routine to foster their growing independence. The more times they engage in an assignment, the more familiar they are with what is expected. After 8 weeks of school, we still struggle with - did you put your name on the paper?, did you put it where it belongs?, can you follow the chart to your next assignment? These are foundational skills. Fortunately those tasks are supported through practice, modeling by others in your group, asking questions of those people, and even making mistakes which provides an opportunity for more DI by the teacher or peers.
    My best suggestion would be for everyone, at every level, to engage in some physical breaks. Get the blood pumping, the muscles activated and more oxygen to their brains. Brain Gym offers some great lessons in whole brain engagement. It brings out our very best. Even teachers can use the activities to stay alert and meaningfully engaged in the process of teaching and learning.

  7. "Can you meet the needs of every single student you teach?"

    Fine sir, that IS the question. I'm new to your blog but I am so glad I found it. See, I recently left the classroom after 12 years to become an Instructional Coach and I'm seeing hard working teachers all over this country with disengaged students doing ZERO deep thinking. Differentiation is most definitely one of the tools that should be sharp and at the ready...but I'm just not seeing it.

    I just started a new/free professional development blog at:
    Stop by...

  8. Unfortunately, with the limitations of 40 minutes to complete instruction, the "breaks" mentioned by gail are next to impossible. I try to use differentiation as much as possible within my classes, but certain aspects of differentiation are impossible with 28+ students in a classroom and only 40 minutes to "glaze" over a topic. Teachers are afraid of differentiation because of the constraints of NCLB and mandated tests which measure nothing. If more schools were to adopt a block scheduling pattern, teachers would be more inclined to use differentiation.

  9. thoughtful presentation of the topic. I agree with your use of surveys to measure aspects of differentiation. Btw, if/when you get a chance check out Zoomerang's Education Survey Center.