"Differentiation" is one of those buzz words in education that sounds great: The teacher instinctively knows how to customize learning for every single student in the classroom...and somehow finds time to create meaningful, rigorous tasks and assignments that will move each student forward. Hear the angels singing? That's the way schools work in a perfect world...but real-world classrooms don't operate that way. Teachers have the best intentions; they want to differentiate for every student, but it takes a TON of time, and it's hard work -- sometimes requiring more expertise than a teacher has at the ready. It's not easy for a high school English teacher, for example, to know how to differentiate literature and writing assignments when there are students reading at the third grade level and kids quoting the Classics (because they have read them all...twice) in the same classroom. The reality of differentiation is one of the greatest challenges in education.
Differentiation is defined beautifully in this week's readings: Smith/Thorne and Tomlinson spell out the "what" of differentiation in a variety of ways. They also provide a number of great examples of the "how" of differentiation in a classroom setting. Variety, flexibility, modification, personalization: they all explain what it means to differentiate. A couple "big ideas" struck me in the reading and in considering differentiation in my own classroom and in those in which I observe on a regular basis:
Differentiation means being ROOTED IN ASSESSMENT. Tomlinson emphasizes this point, and the push for formative assessment in the classroom over the last decade or so has made most teachers aware of how important it is to BEGIN with data that points to a "starting point" for each student. Again, easier said than done! It's easy to assess; it can even be fairly easy to disaggregate and analyze the data (thanks to tech tools that do the work for us). It's knowing what to do next -- how to actually differentiate the learning experiences for students -- that causes the hiccups in the classroom.
Differentiation, done well, requires MULTIPLE APPROACHES. This week's reading highlighted the need for variety in types of tasks, grouping, interaction, and more. Distributing "leveled" worksheets day after day, or giving advanced learning an additional assignment, or allowing struggling learners to skip the hard questions is not effective differentiation, and it does not result in enhanced learning for students. Designing multiple approaches and organizing a classroom where differentiation "works" and results in MORE learning is complicated in that it requires thinking outside the box. It requires more than a "sage on the stage" day after day. It requires letting go on the teacher's part, and stepping up on the part of students. Tomlinson says it should be "organic," but it doesn't happen naturally. It takes a lot of hard work.
Smith, G. E., & Throne, S. (2009). Differentiating Instruction with Technology in Middle School Classrooms. Eugene, OR, USA: ISTE. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com
Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms. Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD). Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com
Quotes of note (and key words)...
Flexibility * Flexible * Modification of Instruction * Diversity * Student Accountability * Constructivist * CARING adults * Talking * Physical space & classroom layout * Differences * Shaking it up * Flexible grouping * Variety * Quality over quantity * PROACTIVE * QUALITATIVE * ROOTED IN ASSESSMENT * MULTIPLE APPROACHES * STUDENT CENTERED * BLENDED * ORGANIC *
"The curricular elements at the core of differentiated instruction (content - input process - throughput and product - output) mirror and marry nicely with technology" (Smith & Throne, p. 29).
"Teachers...don't shoulder all of the responsibility for student learning and achievement [in a differentiated classroom]; students are highly engaged and accountable" (Smith & Throne, p. 30).
"DI features group-driven tasks but also relies upon whole-class and individualized instruction to complement group work. It focuses on the quality of activities versus the quantity of work assigned" (Smith & Throne, p. 30).
"DI depends on pre-, formative, and summative assessments that utilize both traditional and nontraditional evaluation methods, such as teacher observation, self-assessment, and project work" (Smith & Throne, p. 30).
"...instructional decisions based on students' readiness, interests, learning profile, and affect; the learning environment; and the curricular elements of content, process, and product" (Smith & Throne, p. 31).
"...middle school students thrive in a task-oriented classroom with active learning, flexible groups, peer tutoring, focus on improvement, room for mistakes, and, of course, technology" (Smith & Throne, p. 37).
"Technology facilitates modification of instruction in several areas to meet the needs of diverse students by making changes to subject matter (content), channels of throughput (process), means of output (product), and the learning environment. As a great motivator, technology has a powerful influence on our students' affect levels" (Smith & Throne, p. 39).
"In a classroom with little or no differentiated instruction, only student similarities seem to take center stage" (Tomlinson, p. 1).
"At its most basic level, differentiating instruction means 'shaking up' what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn. ...A differentiated classroom provides different avenues to acquiring content, to processing or making sense of ideas, and to developing products so that each student can learn effectively" (Tomlinson, p. 1).
"Teachers who differentiate instruction quickly point out that, if anything, they exert more leadership in their classrooms, not less" (Tomlinson, p. 2).