The 5 Most Common Questions on Differentiation Answered

Part of our Cash in on Learning Series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Much has been publicized recently about the pros and cons of differentiation. Experts volley back and forth the merits of classroom practices intended to narrow the achievement gap and ensure all students reach their potential. As in any vocation, personal philosophies and beliefs guide practice. Differentiation is both a philosophy and an array of practices that have merit in today’s widely diverse classrooms.

Never before in American educational history have there been so many students living in poverty and students whose home language is something other than English. Add to that the constant distractions from media and technology, as well as the pervasiveness of the desires for instant gratification, and we see that the teaching and learning process must transform to address these changes. Differentiation of curriculum and instruction is a significant component of that transformation.

Below are the top five questions I am asked in regards to the philosophy and practices of differentiation. Each answer contains ideas and strategies to consider in transforming your classroom.

1) What is “differentiation”?
Differentiation is the philosophy of addressing each student’s academic and social-emotional needs to help them achieve their full potential. It’s the move from “one-size-fits-all” curriculum and instructional practices to identifying what each child needs to reach academic goals. Differentiation considers various avenues for learning and addresses different formats for assessment. It can be thought of in “whats” and “hows.”

What can be differentiated:

  • Environment—the “where and when of learning.” Some students do well in quiet places, while others do well in spaces with more sound. Some students work well near windows while others work well in enclosed spaces. Some students enjoy working online while others need the face-to-face interactions.
  • Content—the “what we teach for learning.” While all students should accomplish national, state, or locally set standards, some may reach them earlier (meaning there is a need for enrichment, extensions, or enhancements to the core content), while others need more time (meaning compacting content to the essentials or offering additional materials to support reaching the goal). Content is what we want our students to know (factually), do (procedurally), and understand (conceptually).
  • Process—the “how students come to own the learning.” Some students enjoy working in groups while others like to learn alone. Some students need more scaffolds or practice to develop skills while others need less time and practice. The process is the learning activities students engage in to acquire skill and develop conceptual understanding.
  • Product—the “showing what the student has learned.” While all students should be assessed on standards, there are many different ways a student can represent what they know, can do, and understand. Some will enjoy demonstrations while others want to write about their learning. While all students will be tested in the same way on local, state, and national tests (most likely through a paper and pencil format), these forms of assessments may not always represent what a student has learned. This is why product differentiation is a useful tool in the learning process.

How the four “whats” can be differentiated:

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  • Readiness. Readiness can be measured in how prepared the student is for learning. Some students come to school with a great deal of skill development and background knowledge, while others have had limited experiences and need more options and supports throughout the learning.
  • Interest. Every child has an interest in something. Finding out what students are interested in can attach them to the learning. Additionally, getting students interested in the learning can have a significant effect on their desire to achieve academic goals.
  • Learning Type. Each of us learns in different ways. Some people enjoy reading about new topics, while others would rather have someone tell them about it. Some students enjoy learning in a group while others succeed at doing things independently. Considering how the student likes to learn and perform can be an effective way to engage and motivate students.

2) Why differentiate?
As stated at the beginning of this post, our classrooms are far more diverse and distractible than ever in human history. We also have significant neurological evidence that supports the fact that we all like to learn in different ways. If we approach learning from one direction, we are most likely not going to address the learning needs of the majority of our students. Planning for the differences in your classroom by offering options, choices, varied structures, and different ways of doing and showing can significantly increase student motivation and achievement.

3) Won’t differentiation take me a lot of time?
In the world of ever-changing standards, curriculum, and expectations, teachers do not have additional time on their hands to write lessons for each individual child. However, by analyzing the evidence of varied needs among your students, you can target specific strategies to improve their achievement. It’s the combination of focused instruction and curricular necessities that make differentiation work. However, you will not differentiate everything all the time. You differentiate when you know you have a need to close gaps in learning, extend knowledge beyond the core, or motivate and engage your students in the content.

4) If I have students doing different things in the classroom, won’t they wonder why or want to do what the others are doing?
Teaching must be considered a profession like medicine. When the student (patient) comes to us, we must find out what she knows and doesn’t know (diagnostic assessment). When we are fully aware of her needs, we prescribe specific treatments to address them. Not every patient comes to the doctor’s office to receive the same treatment, so we shouldn’t be providing the same treatment in the classroom. Making students fully aware of the varied needs and the ways they are addressed is a component of the differentiated environment.

5) Where do I begin? Or, What do I do next?
I always say, start small and think big! Differentiation will require a considerable time investment. However, the more you do it, you will actually see your overall efficiency increase. The first step is to create the right mindset for yourself and your students. We all should focus on whatever it takes to get our students to be proficient in what we want them to know, be able to do, and understand. Start small by working on one idea at a time, develop your expertise, share ideas with others, and build your knowledge base. Every hour you invest now in planning and implementation will save you an hour in the future—and will enable your students to succeed.

Differentiation is not easy. It takes time, forethought, planning, analysis, and reflection to make the philosophy and practice work. I’d love to hear about your struggles with differentiation and how you have overcome those obstacles.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Advancing Differentiation

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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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