As the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development points out, today’s educators face a catch-22 — they must “help decidedly unstandardized students meet an expanding set of rigorous, standardized learning targets.” Fortunately, teachers have a solution to this dilemma in differentiated instruction.
A differentiated classroom accommodates the heterogeneity of students by tailoring instruction to each student’s backgrounds, interests, skill, and readiness levels. Read on to learn more about differentiated teaching, why it works, and how to implement it in your classroom.
Photo credit: Ethan Hein
Carol Ann Tomlinson, author of “The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners,” is the country’s preeminent scholar on differentiated instruction. Tomlinson defines differentiated learning as “ensuring that what a student learns, how he/she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he/she has learned is a match for that student’s readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning.” She likens the reluctance to integrate modern knowledge of the learning process into the classroom to settling for a Model T instead of embracing 21st-century engineering.
Tomlinson identifies four curriculum-related elements that teachers can modify according to students’ needs: content, process, product, and affect. Each of these elements is defined below:
Content: What teachers want students to learn and the methods whereby students access that content (e.g., online research).
Process: How students make sense of the content.
Product: How students show their understanding of a topic.
Affect: The way students’ feelings affect the learning process. This theory contends that a positive affect toward learning facilitates academic growth.
Neurological research on learning contributed to both the genesis and proliferation of the differentiation theory. Dr. Judy Willis, a neurologist, authored research on brain-based learning that proved seminal for the differentiation movement. As Edutopia highlights in its profile of her, Dr. Willis discovered that teaching with multiple learning modalities creates more dendritic pathways to access the information. In other words, diverse learning methods result in the storage of information in several places in the brain, creating powerful interconnections. In this way, the content is truly learned, not merely memorized.
Empirical support for differentiation doesn’t stop at neuroscience. Myriad studies show the efficacy of differentiated instruction in helping struggling readers, students with special needs, and gifted students. Further, the underlying assumptions of the differentiation theory dovetail with the theory of multiple intelligences.
Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard, posited that nine different intelligences dictate a student’s capabilities and the ways in which he/she demonstrates learning. Differentiation embraces this theory, appealing to each student’s intelligences in pedagogy and assessment.
In a 2010 post on the subject (updated last January), Rebecca Alber at Edutopia wisely identifies “start with the student” as the first step to implementing differentiated instruction. While the she encourages educators to comb through students’ files, stopping there could leave teachers with a myopically one-dimensional view. In addition to perusing students’ histories, teachers should also assess skill levels in a subject area through standardized test scores and other assessments. An assessment of students’ learning styles and interests can also help inform instruction.
Next, examine your curriculum to identify areas that you could modify to incorporate differentiation. After you identify what you want students to learn, select several concepts or skills that could easily be taught at varying levels of complexity. You can then brainstorm ideas for activities that incorporate that concept or skill. For instance, if your interest assessment reveals that you have a group of students intensely interested in sports, you might choose small group instruction for these students using math problems with sports themes.
Finally, evaluate your role as an educator in a differentiated classroom. Tailoring instructional delivery methods is a critical component of differentiation. For example, a student’s learning profile might reveal that he/she learns best through audio or visual delivery and repetition, in which case you might provide supplemental video or audio notes for repeat listening.
Likewise, this approach requires educators to coordinate a number of logistics, as not all students will study the same subject or work on the same task on any given day. Develop a plan for students to access the requisite materials for their projects as well as the time and physical space allotted to each assignment.
On Scholastic’s website, teaching expert Laura Robb discusses her classroom experience with differentiated reading instruction. Robb uses tiering in her instruction, which refers to modifying class experiences according to where students are so they can complete tasks that promote progress. One way she tiers is by tailoring how her students demonstrate what they’ve learned from their reading assignment. While some write a paragraph responding to the text, others design art projects or give performances demonstrating their knowledge.
Differentiated classrooms aren’t without their critics. Laura Pappano of the Harvard Education Letter says the primary criticism with this method is that it requires too much of teachers in that they must individualize everything. Mike Shmoker, an education consultant, contends that teachers are spread too thin as is, and differentiation simply isn’t tenable as a result.
Additionally, differentiated instruction operates on assumptions about a student’s readiness, skill level, etc. that may not prove correct. Inaccurate assumptions end up derailing the learning process and potentially creating chaos in the classroom. In Pappano’s article for the Harvard Education Letter, for example, math teacher Sherryl Hauser is quoted as saying that students complained when they saw their papers contained more problems than those of their classmates when she attempted differentiation.
While educators are nowhere near perfecting differentiated instruction, the benefits of the approach seem to outweigh the drawbacks. Differentiated instruction helps engage and motivate students in the classroom, thereby enhancing their learning. As Tomlinson puts it, “you could have an egg on toast every night for dinner, but to advance as a chef, you have to expand your ingredients.” Shortcomings notwithstanding, that’s exactly what differentiation can do for educators.