Differentiation is a term that all teachers know. We read about it in books, hear about it in training, and see it on our evaluation rubrics. Teachers know they have to differentiate to meet the needs of their students. They try to do so with the knowledge and tools that they have. Many teachers do this with high levels of success. However, many educators still struggle with what differentiation “looks like” in the classroom and therefore feel stuck.

One question I am usually asked is, “How can we differentiate instruction, yet still prepare students to master grade level standards at the end of the year? If we slow down and teach struggling students at their level, they may not be ready for state testing.” It is an enormous hurdle for teachers to overcome. This may sound counter-intuitive. What’s important to note is that differentiation isn’t remediation. To differentiate, you don’t slow down learning or stop teaching grade level content in order to address a particular deficit in skills. Instead, differentiation lets individual students’ needs to be met while still exposing students to grade level standards.

1. Content

There are 3 ways that you can differentiate in the classroom to meet students’ needs. One way is through content. Content pertains to what students will actually learn. To do this, it’s important to pre-assess students to determine what they already know and also, what their background knowledge is. It will allow you to differentiate the amount of content you will take up with students. By using your pre-assessment data, you can group students according to need. After doing this, you’ll know which students need pre-teaching, which students are ready for the content, and which students need content to be accelerated and enriched.

You can do this in various ways. Instead of lecturing, you can provide a mini-lesson to the whole group, then break it into smaller groups and allow the students to interact with content that satisfies their needs. During that small group time, focus your attention on pre-teaching and supporting students with greater needs, providing structure for students who are on grade level, and presenting enriched content for those who are above grade level. These flexible groupings will allow you to hit multiple pieces of your content which will really meet the needs of each group. Also, you can use learning stations and project-based learning, enabling you to differentiate through content.

2. Process

The 2nd way to differentiate is through process, or how students will learn. In doing so, you’ll enable students to utilize their gifts. The way that one student might engage may be different from another. By tapping into various modalities (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile), you can customize learning to fit the style that works best for every student. A teacher can offer multiple ways for students to engage in their learning. For example, you can meet the needs of visual learners by letting them look at pictures or view a demonstration.

For auditory learners, discuss learning in small groups, verbally problem-solve, or allow them to listen to e-books. Meanwhile, tactile learners do best when they write notes, draw visual representations, or are provided with hands-on activities. Finally, kinesthetic learners need to be physically involved in their learning. They prefer activity and movement rather than watch or listen. As a teacher, you can differentiate process by means of group work or individualized work. It can vary from day-to-day to meet the needs of all modalities and learning styles.

3. Product

The 3rd way is differentiation through product. It’s how students will show what they know. Introducing student choice is important. Teachers need to identify what experiences are best suited for individual students and then, provide them different options to choose from. Some can be required options while others could be a free choice. Students respond very well to choice. Some educators call it controlled choice because the teacher determines the options. This is a win-win situation. The teacher gains the necessary data to make instructional decisions, while the student feels empowered and tries to do well on work they have chosen to complete.

Menu boards, contracts, and tic-tac-toe sheets are ways to offer controlled choice. Schools that use project-based learning offer great product choice for the students. When offering product differentiation, it’s very helpful to have a rubric go along with an assignment. This way, teachers can assess the product easily, and students will know the expectations before making a choice.

Conclusion

Teachers who want to meet their students’ needs while still exposing them to grade level standards can differentiate through content, process, and product. Keep in mind that pre-assessment data will help guide you in making instructional decisions about grouping and groupings are flexible to meet the needs of students. When differentiating, teachers enable students to grow and excel, rather than grow farther behind.

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