Differentiation: A Critical Challenge

Every educator is deeply familiar with the “d” word…differentiation. In an ever-complex and changing world with increasing student needs and greater demands on teachers, the ability to serve the distinct needs of each student is a complicated and sometimes daunting task. Areas of differentiation that must be addressed in each classroom are content, process, product and learning environment. For a bit of context for each of these areas, see here:

Content: Areas of state-mandated knowledge and skill areas which every student must master.

Process: The way in which content is mastered. This includes their activities, projects, worksheets, group work, and more.

Product: The myriad of ways that students can demonstrate what they have learned. Products can include projects, reports, conferences with the teacher, and more creative options.

Learning Environment: This means different things for different teachers. Some find that providing unique and varied learning areas (book nooks, de-stressing zones, grouped tables, etc.) allows for easier differentiation. Others prefer a unified environment and differentiation occurs via content.

The aim of classroom differentiation is to provide students with the opportunity to learn at their own pace and to develop in different areas. Differentiation takes on many forms. Some areas that all teachers must consider include:

Grouping: when classes are structured so that students who have different levels of ability or knowledge are grouped together. This allows teachers to monitor student progress and ensures that every student has the opportunity to develop their skills and knowledge at a level appropriate for them. Building classroom space that accommodates all learning levels is complicated and requires a lot of out-of-class time to build.

Curriculum: Choosing, developing, and teaching various curricula to meet needs is critical but challenging. Teachers more than ever have unique and helpful units to investigate which provides opportunity and also arduous work. Finding the correct curriculum for each learning level takes vetting, time and attention. In short, time. While school districts often provide guidance for what curriculum is approved and suggested, every teacher knows that this may not entirely suit the needs of their classroom. Preparation and planning is needed to properly outfit a truly differentiated classroom for success.

Team based teaching: A terrific way to allow kids to teach kids is to allow room for team based teaching. If properly implemented, pairing children of different ability levels and allowing them to problem-solve together can provide great opportunities for growth for all students. These teams can be pairs or larger groups. Peers learning from each other in two-way communication is an innovative way to provide a differentiated classroom.

Teacher teams: In a healthy school, teachers have time to collaborate to make grade level differentiation easier and better for all. Bouncing ideas off of grade-level teammates can enrich a teacher’s classroom environment. In many cases, teachers develop plans together for the benefit of all students.

Fostering differentiated environments can be a lot of hard work. Creating a truly differentiated classroom requires strategizing and a game plan. There are many things a teacher must consider when approaching their classroom, including the following:

Meeting students where they are: understanding present levels for each student and knowing their strengths and weaknesses helps teachers group properly and gives them a starting point.

Fairness in assignments: Keep work among all groups equal in required effort. Children notice what seems like an unfair workload and nothing can dismantle a classroom like resentment among students.

Embedded benchmarking: Consistently and quietly evaluating progress using whatever tools a teacher prefers gives a more clear sense of how a student is moving forward.

Understanding interests: Leaning in to student interests can breed motivation and create natural groupings of different learners, allowing peer education. Teachers can also use interest levels or topic areas as ways to group different learning levels.

Diverse grouping: Teachers can use many kinds of groups to engage students from each strand of learning level. Many educators rely on learning centers for organic peer education. As students move through their centers, students can help each other learn. Teaming students up for small group projects (see above with team based teaching) can be a change-maker.

In creatively differentiating, teachers will always face the challenge of finding enough planning time, pushback from administrations that may not see the value of curriculum choices and the overwhelming stress of meeting needs of many diverse learners. Making a plan, creating a framework and having a vision for the classroom can help mitigate these factors.