Differentiation isn’t a thing; it’s a pedagogical mindset

The word differentiation makes us think of individualized programming.  That always just seems like a lot of work.  But differentiation can also just be part of how you organize your lessons.  The best way to know if you are differentiating your lessons is to think about what a non-differentiated lesson would look like.

When we teach one lesson to the whole class and then the whole class does exactly the same activity, and the activity is closed, then it is most likely a non-differentiated lesson.  Is that always a bad thing?  No.  Sometimes, that lesson is perfectly geared to the students I have.  Sometimes at the beginning of a learning cycle I may start that way to see where everyone is at.  But, if the majority of my lessons look like that then I am not differentiating.

Differentiation just means that I design my lessons, learning and activities to meet the needs of a variety of students.  I differentiate because I believe that all of my students can learn but they might learn in different ways and at different times and with different kinds of instruction.  It does not mean that each student needs a separate activity.  If you use the following teaching practices, you are differentiating:

  • Small group instruction where the teacher is proactive in selecting students in advance who need to learn or practice a particular skill. These are not always your struggling students.  Use small groups to push all students to the very next level of understanding.
  • Small group instruction where the students self-identify that they need extra support. Instead of trying to answer questions by going to students, have the students come to you and work in a small group.  It is a more effective use of your time.  Once you create a culture of working with small groups (and it can and does happen from kindergarten through grade 12) then students will often automatically figure out when they need extra support.
  • Grouping students strategically. I don’t suggest letting students choose their own groups very often.  They don’t choose well and someone always feels left out.  When you group students for a particular task based on the their abilities, sometimes choosing mixed abilities, sometimes choosing interest and sometimes using homogeneous groups, you create differentiated learning from their peers.
  • Open-ended tasks allow students to enter the work at their comfort level. If you create a worksheet, make sure that the questions are open-ended.  A closed worksheet means there is only one correct answer.  If there is only one possible answer then those that know it aren’t thinking much and those that don’t can’t do it.  Practice sheets are sometimes useful but again, what happens for those students for whom it is new material, not practice?
  • Create tasks of varying difficulty and let students choose the one they want to work on. If you look at the curriculum, rarely does it say that students have to demonstrate the skill with a complex problem.  Offer students a choice of problems all which target the concept you are teaching.  Rarely do students pick a problem that is too hard or easy for them; if they do, don’t forget that you are the teacher and can guide them in their choice.
  • If the task is open-ended, do think ahead of time about how you can create closed parameters for those that need more structure. Can you organize the page?  Provide the vocabulary? Offer graphic organizers? Chunk the work?
  • Guided instruction means that you have frequent check-ins. You have determined the tricky bits ahead of time and stop all students, or groups of students, to ensure they are on the right track.  Just as you chunk student work you can chunk your instruction into smaller bits.

If you organize your teaching with a belief that all students need to do the same learning through the same task at the same time, you are not differentiating.  But, if you organize your teaching so that students are able to attack the learning from different entry points, all reaching the same goal by the end, then you are differentiating.  Differentiation is really about your pedagogical beliefs about how students learn.

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