Differentiation 101

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Differentiation 101Anyone in the field of education who hasn’t heard the term differentiation hasn’t been paying attention. Since the late 1980s, teachers have been encouraged to differentiate as a way to provide individual students with what they need, when they need it. As differentiation has gained popularity over the past almost-30 years, it has also attracted its share of controversy.

Some believe differentiation is a fad that is unattainable. Some say the pure nature of trying to address 30-some individuals in one classroom is time consuming and not necessarily worth the effort. Others state that there is no research or evidence to support differentiation’s use. Personally, I agree with famed educator Dr. Dylan Wiliam when he says that consistency in delivering lessons targeted to learning standards, that include multiple checkpoints for understanding, and that include adjustments to instruction for all to find meaning may be the most powerful, cost-effective action to ensure learning. That’s differentiation!

Differentiation is not 30 separate lessons, nor is it something that happens all the time in all classrooms. As my friend Dr. Diane Heacox states, differentiation is not an event, it’s a habit of keeping students at the center of learning. I often tell people that differentiation is a philosophy of doing the business of learning. Teachers must have the mindset that every child can learn and that every child learns differently. Knowing how each child learns, what interests her, and what her special/individualized needs are—and then being able to adjust or modify curriculum and instructional practices accordingly—is differentiation. See my answers to five common questions about differentiation in this blog post.

The place to begin the process of differentiation is through your curriculum. Curriculum is not your textbook! Textbooks can support us in delivering the curriculum, but they are a source, not the source, of information. Curriculum is what we want our students to understand (conceptually), be able to do (procedurally), and know (factually). The national, state, provincial, and local standards inform us about these three components (or lenses) of curriculum. With clarity about the three objectives within your curriculum comes focus for how to engage your learners through interests, how to scaffold or extend activities based on levels of readiness, and how to address special learning needs and learner profiles (whether higher or lower).

Here’s an example of a differentiated fifth-grade social studies assignment.

Strand: Citizenships and Government
Substrand: Governmental Institutions and Political Processes
Standard: The United States government has specific functions that are determined by the way power is delegated and controlled among the three levels (federal, state, local) and the three branches (legislative, executive, judicial) of government. (MN K–12 Social Studies State Standards)

This standard can be examined through the three lenses of the curriculum.

Students will understand (conceptually) government’s power and control. (Do note that I have broadened the understanding beyond the unit topic of the US government—this is essential to the conceptual understanding of any content area.)

Students will be able to (procedurally) explain and analyze:

  • The specific functions of the three branches of the US government
  • How leadership in each branch is determined as established in the US Constitution
  • How the three levels of the US government interact and work together

Note: The procedural level includes all the skills being developed and the strategies being learned.

Students will know (factually):

  • Vocabulary
  • The three branches of the US government
  • The three levels of government

Note: At the factual level, there are many things you want students to be able to recall—I have not listed them in their entirety.

Some standards, especially those in ELA and math, may not be as specific on the conceptual level, with greater emphasis placed on the procedural level. This gives you the opportunity to investigate why the strategies and skills matter. In ELA, for example, it’s about the concept of effective communication; in math, it’s about the concept of problem-solving. For more information on concept development and essential questioning, check out this past blog post.

Next, decide how you are going to get your students to greater understanding of the concepts, greater skill development of the procedural aspects, and greater factual knowledge recall.

With understanding concepts, keep in mind that students learn conceptually through experiences. For the social studies assignment example, provide students with different ways to experience government and the balance of power. For example:

  • Some students may be interested in creating a classroom government that parallels the US government (interest-based).
  • Some students may prefer to view videos on how governments balance the controls of power (preferred ways of doing/learner profile).
  • Some students may need to read or listen to the textbook explanation of how the US government controls balance of power (readiness).

Base your experiential options on a preassessment of what students understand about the concepts of government and the balance (control) of power. Here’s an idea for a conceptual-understanding preassessment:

Differentiation 101

Procedural learning (what we expect our students to be able to do) happens through practice. Some students need a lot of practice, others need less, and others may need more complex applications. Again, using preassessments to determine the level and amount of practice necessary will be essential to providing the right adjustments to activities. Using station rotation with leveled activities can be an effective way to differentiate at the procedural level. Learn more about centers and stations in this blog post. For some wonderful resources on developing centers and stations, check out the website of my good friend, Dr. Katie McKnight.

At the factual level (what we want our students to know), we learn best through repetition. Again, some students need more while some need less. I’m cautious about giving some students more facts while others do less. What may be more effective is providing students with different ways to memorize and retain the facts, such as through mnemonics, songs, or flash cards. You can also use websites or apps, such as Quizlet, to help kids learn factual information in a more interactive way.

To take your learning of differentiation deeper, check out Free Spirit’s many excellent resources.

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

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition Differentiation for Gifted Learners


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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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