Differentiation – What is it? How does it work?

14 Nov

What is differentiation?

Many people believe that differentiation is simply that teachers need to recognise that students learn in different ways and that teachers need to provide different learning instructions to help students to learn.

However differentiation is recognising that classrooms are heterogenous or that classrooms have students of mixed abilities. For example, we will have students that have English as a second language or speak more than one dialect in their First or home languages. We may have students with special needs or students with learning difficulties. But we might also have gifted or talented students who may become easily bored with the learning materials. Carol Tomlinson advises us to not see students as a group but as individuals. It is to the individuals that we have to teach it to.

We must accept that every student in our classroom is an individual and we need to tailor instruction for the learning needs of every student. Students as individuals have varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning – ie some students are visual and some may be oral students. Differentiation does not mean we have to ‘dumb down’ the curriculum or the learning. Quite the opposite. Differentiation means that teachers have to provide learning experiences that have high expectations for our students.

So what is Differentiation? Differentiation is when we provide a learning experience that is engaging, motivating and challenging for every student. Differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching and learning so that students have multiple options for taking in information and making sense of ideas.

If we were to teach a lesson about democracy, students would not just read about democracy in a text book. Teachers could use direct teaching to explain the concepts of democracy. We could watch a video on democracy. We could visit a town hall or we could invite a politician to visit the school to talk about democracy. In the classroom we could have class discussions or we could have role plays where ideals of democracy were discussed and debated. We could use computers in the classroom where students could use webspaces or visit democracy sites and answer questions on democracy.

There is no single method to differentiation. At the heart of differentiation is the belief that teaching approaches should vary and be adapted to individual and diverse students. But differentiation is also maximising each students growth and individual success. We need to recognise that each student is on a different level and assist students in their learning.

Differentiation could be using visuals or other teaching tools as computers. It could also be allowing more time for students to copy off the board. It could be talking slower for those students who may have hearing problems. It could be adjusting the classroom seating to allow students with eye problems to sit closer to the board. It could be repeating words or providing thesarus or dictionaries for ESL students. It could be adjusting worksheets for students with learning difficulties or providing challenging materials for gifted students.

What can we diffentiate?

Content or Presentation – how it is taught. We need to allow the students to access the content and understand the concepts, generalisations, principles, attitudes and skills. Teachers must focus on the broad based understanding of concepts, principles and skills that students should learn than the minute details.

Process – How it is done – Use flexible groupings where grouping is not fixed and where learners interact and work together as they develop knowledge of new content. Use flexible groupings so that students may be grouped with students of different learning abilities and perspectives.

Teachers can use whole class introductory discussion followed by small group or pair work. Use classroom management strategies as flexible or permanent seating. If your going to use group work, you need to work out what desk or seating you want for groups to sit in.

Products – How do Students demonstrate knowledge?

Initial and on-going assessment of student readiness and growth is very important and needs to be made an important part of planning so it tells teachers how to better provide instruction and what scaffolds we need to put in place. Assessments may be formal or informal. Types of assessment can include interviews, surveys, performance assessments as role plays.

We need to remember that assessment, learning strategies need to align with the outcomes.

Allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding in a variety of ways. Allow for varying means of expression, alternative assessment and varying levels of difficulty and scoring.

Build on students prior knowledge and understandings. Try to incorporate different views and perspectives of the world. If students see their cultures and views demonstrated they will feel a sense of belonging and that their identity is valued.

Engaging and motivating students is essential. Do not use the same tasks but vary them. Provide a balance between teacher-assigned and student-selected tasks and allow students choices in their learning. Provide real life activities and scenarios – authentic learning experiences that allow the students to engage in the learning than just observing. Let students see the practical application of what they are learning. Students learn best when they are doing.

Many may believe that differentiation is difficult and unrewarding. But when we think about it, having students of mixed abilities can be very rewarding. The thought that we are helping another student to learn and enter adulthood one day, that we can and have played an important part in their lives can be very rewarding.

But there are other benefits. Differentiation provides ways for all students to feel affirmed, challenged and succesful. It also allows for students to develop their social skills through interaction with teachers and other students. If we want our students to be good citizens, it is important that our classrooms model democracy where students have choices in the learning.

Most important of all, differentiation allows for our students to be succesful and competent learners ready one day to leave school and enter the world confident in their own abilities and skills.

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