The thing about Differentiation.

This year I worked with a number of colleagues to develop an online course on classroom differentiation, which was completed by all staff at my current school and another 500 or so teachers from around Australia and the globe. In this article, I would like to share some of the research presented within the course and explore some of the responses made by those learners who participated in the course.

A majority of our learners came from Australia and North America; however, we also had about 20% from Western Europe and 15% from Asia. With such a broad range of educational contexts to draw perspectives from it was interesting to find that most of the learners shared similar aspirations towards increasing the extent to which they differentiate their teaching and learning.

Below is a typical response to a question about how the learner’s view of differentiation had changed over the course of the program.

“Although I have been teaching for a long time and I believe that I engage with differentiation daily, I now know that I must make a more concerted effort to incorporate this more into my planning and make it something that leads my decisions on teaching content. If I am to be to be honest with myself I think I teach too often with a ‘one size fits all’ approach and try to manage those that aren’t with me more as a damage control measure! This may be too critical but I know that I can’t consider myself an expert in this area regardless of my years of experience.”

Differentiation is a word that is appearing more and more within educational circles and it has made its way into the Australian National Professional Standards for Teachers, which all practitioners will have to show evidence of adhering to from 2017 and beyond. In the course, we defined differentiation as “pedagogical strategies implemented to meet the needs of diverse learners, where instruction is varied to meet the individual needs of all students.” This definition led to the conclusion that differentiation required teachers to (a) challenge all learners by providing varied levels of difficulty, (b) vary the degree of scaffolding, and (c) vary the ways in which students work.[1] What we found throughout the course is that many teachers expressed good general knowledge about what differentiation was but lacked the knowledge or experience to express what differentiation looked like in the classroom or what it entailed.

Standard 1.5 – Differentiate teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities

Below are some examples of learner definitions of differentiation at the beginning of the course.

“Differentiation in my experience means meeting the needs of my students through lessons, activities, and or tasks that focus on the students individual needs and current understanding with the end goal of meeting the course objective or standard.”

“Catering the learning activities to suit the different learning styles of the students at that point in time and being mindful of their backgrounds.”

“Differentiation to me means being able to provide a certain level of education to fit the needs of every single child. Not everyone learns the same way and being able to cater to those learning needs and being able to recognise them is a responsibility of an educator.”

These responses, although well stated, explain the goal of differentiation, without really getting in to the finer details of how we practice differentiation within the classroom. Perhaps a better response is expressed in the answer below.

“To target a learning activity at the specific needs of all learners. That is to say including less complex questions with perhaps a different context to pupils who are struggling and more challenging questions to those who are high flyers while making sure those in between have the correct balance to their outcomes. All the while taking into consideration any extra needs pupils may have such as large print different coloured paper, text typing etc.”

But is this an achievable goal for all teachers..? And is this even all that there is to differentiating a classroom? Should we be aspiring to even greater degrees of differentiation?

Differentiation can be executed using one of two initial approaches; student driven or teacher driven. In the student driven model, the goal is for students to learn how to self-regulate their learning. That is, students need to be able to make appropriate decisions when given a choice of performance task or activity. The teacher driven model relies heavily on formative assessment, whereby the teacher closely monitors student progress and pitches tasks at their current level of knowledge and understanding.

Each of these approaches sound like more work for teachers, who need to develop multiple versions of each learning activity. Rick Wormli, an American educational consultant, suggests the contrary, that differentiation is less than 20% craft and 80% mindset. Course respondents were overwhelmingly in favour of this view, gallantly suggesting that a positive mindset was much more important for successful innovation.

“It’s a way to teach smarter, not harder. Teachers have more time when they differentiate than when they run around trying to put out fires or re teaching lessons that weren’t successful the first time around.”

“Differentiating is whatever we do to maximise learning using any kind of resource or material at our hands. We have to be open, as Wormeli says, and have a wide range of strategies to be put into practice when noticing something is not going well.”

So in what ways did respondents suggest they could further differentiate their classes after the course? Here are some examples;

“Along side the language content, I could deliver a cultural project using Project Based Learning (PBL). The students will have a selection of projects at three different levels of difficulty (1 point, 2 point and 3 point tasks). To complete the section of the course they must complete enough tasks to reach five points. The tasks themselves are broad in that they incorporate various skills from drawing, basic to advanced literacy skills and designing complex concepts / models. The students love these types of tasks and the ability to choose which project they complete. The tasks may also be based around themes like sport, customs, food etc.”

“To develop a differentiated learning experience I might have the students pair up and each read the section of text they are required to summarize. When they are done they would then verbally share what that text was about with their partner. This part of the process would be developed by using special consideration to the types of partnerships created; it could be that the partnerships would be students of similar levels, or of similar cultural backgrounds, or those who are opposite styles to provide contrast, but the structure of the group would be critical for effective use of the differentiated learning methods.”

“While teaching Models of Human Development to psychology students, I wanted to assess the students’ understanding of the models taught, and gave them a case study they needed to comment on, applying the knowledge they gained through the lesson. Instead of that, I could perhaps offer them a wider variety of tasks they could choose from in order to demonstrate their learning. Apart from the case study, I could also offer them the choices of; commenting on a movie character, commenting on a literature character or commenting on their own personal development.”

How often do you differentiate the content in your classroom? And in what ways do you do it? How affective / essential do you think differentiation is as a teaching and learning strategy? Please let me know by posting a comment below…


[1] These definitions of differentiation are adapted from; Tomlinson, C. (2003) Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom: Strategies and Tools for Responsive Teaching. Alexandria, VA.: ASCD.

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