The Difference with Differentiation

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Kelly Reilly

Kelly Reilly


Recently, our Elementary Staff participated in our First Professional Development Day of the year. Part of our day was spent with Catapult Learning deepening our understanding of Differentiation in the Classroom. I’m sure somewhere along the way you’ve either heard, read or seen something about this topic. When you hear that term “differentiation”, what do you think of? Most people associate that term with the teacher providing each student with something different. In theory that sounds great. Wouldn’t every parent love to have an individualized plan for their student each day? However, differentiation is something, well, completely different.

Differentiation in the classroom is defined as allowing opportunity for all students. This can be done through variations in content (what they learn), process (how they learn), product (what they use to learn) or the environment (where they learn). So how do the teachers know what these variations should be? Let me give you an example.

A teacher is introducing a new unit on fractions in math. The teacher could just open the teacher’s guide and teach the lesson provided. Curriculum is designed to give the students the information they need to meet goals. So, in that sense, teaching from the teacher’s guide is not bad. However, what about that student in the back row that is easily distracted? Or the one in the front that is a math whiz and already knows all there is to know about fractions? In both cases, it’s likely that those students will tune out and disengage during the lesson. It’s not practical for the teacher to plan a different lesson for each student in the classroom, so how can the teacher effectively provide opportunity for all students to be engaged in this new topic? The answer is differentiation.

Teachers begin by using a strategy called pre-assessment. This can be formal, like a written survey of students preferred ways to learn (reading, listening, watching videos, etc.) or informal like asking students to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on a topic. Whatever way it is accomplished, the information from pre-assessment helps the teacher know what the students need. In our example about our new math unit, the teacher might ask the students to show a thumbs up or thumbs down
indicating their understanding of fractions. The teacher could quickly see the students that are already comfortable and provide them with independent work on fractions to deepen their understanding. For those in which fractions are a totally new concept, the teacher can work with them in a small group to introduce the topic. Now, all the students are engaged because of the different opportunities provided.

The teachers at HTLS use differentiation strategies on a regular basis. Lessons are planned to meet the various styles of learning, the interests of the students and levels of their understanding. While this does not mean that an individual lesson is planned for each student, it does mean that all students are given many opportunities throughout the day to learn the way that is best for them. Walking through the classrooms at HTLS, you can see students engaged, involved and active in learning, and that is the difference with differentiation.

“Differentiation is classroom practice that looks eyeball to eyeball with the reality that kids differ, and the most effective teachers do whatever it takes to hook the whole range of kids on learning.”

Carol Ann Tomlinson

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