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3 considerations for differentiation in the classroom

Prioritizing individual student needs and managing differentiation in the classroom isn’t an impossible task if the right strategies are in place

Differentiated classroom instruction has always been part of U.S. public education, but today’s focus on tailoring each lesson for each student can overwhelm teachers. There are, however, best-practice approaches to differentiating instruction that enable educators to provide customized learning experiences for students without creating an unmanageable burden for teachers. Here are the top three considerations for doing differentiation in the classroom right.

1. Redefine ‘differentiation’

Too often, educators are encouraged to implement a personalized approach for each individual student instead of recognizing the benefits that groups of students can enjoy from similar modifications to the curriculum. Teachers can adopt a manageable approach to differentiation in the classroom by identifying clusters of student needs and then classifying the most beneficial ways to differentiate instruction for these groups. The goal is to understand what will work for most students, while creating more than one entry point or path for individual student learning.

In designing these points of entry, teachers can cluster students by the types of needs they may have.

Teachers can effectively differentiate learning by assessing students’ readiness to learn in the following areas:

  • Current academic performance in the content domain.
  • Potential for academic performance in the domain, with consideration of learning opportunities and possible obstacles.
  • Affect related to school, including anxiety.
  • Academic interests or what excites the student.
  • Motivation, including concepts such as grit, growth mindset, and resilience.

Teachers have a lot of flexibility in using this information for differentiation in the classroom. For example, the first three bullets may determine the pacing and amount of practice students may require, while the last two bullets can help determine product choices or extension activities. 

Carol Ann Tomlinson, a leading expert on the topic of differentiating content, suggests that differentiation can occur along several continuums, which include pace, depth of content, level of structure, and complexity. The best continuum to use will depend on students’ current and potential academic achievement as well as their effect, interests, and motivation. Resources like this can help educators identify the most effective and efficient paths for differentiation. 

It is also important to keep in mind that in addition to content, educators can create differentiation in the classroom based on students’ interests and social-emotional needs.

2. Make differentiation manageable

There are multiple approaches to making differentiation manageable. Total School Cluster Grouping (TSCG), a strategy developed by Marcia Gentry, the director of the Gifted Education Resource Institute and Professor of Educational Studies at Purdue University, and her colleagues, seeks to limit performance variability within classrooms. In a typical single age-based classroom, students can vary by up to four grade levels of performance.

The goal of TSCG is to create more homogenous classrooms, not only because students can benefit from learning with students just above or below their performance level, but also because individual teachers will need to differentiate for only two or three broad levels of academic performance instead of four or five. I recommend that more schools consider this approach.

3. Separate current performance from potential for performance

While we cannot measure a student’s true potential for learning without considering educational opportunities, ability tests can provide greater insight into a student’s academic potential than an achievement test alone. A student’s performance on achievement tests reflects mainly on the quality (and quantity) of past instruction–the learning that has already occurred. By contrast, an ability test engages students in reasoning about novel problems. It demonstrates thinking skills learned from everyday life and gauges a student’s readiness to engage with new content. This readiness to learn is informed to various degrees by biology, learning experiences, and the developmental environment (e.g., how much language they’re exposed to, how often they are asked to think with numbers, etc.). 

A student’s current performance on an achievement test helps teachers decide what content a student needs next. Ability test scores add deeper insights related to the optimal pace of instruction, complexity, and the degree of structure that will be most effective for the student. Weaker ability scores in a particular area indicate that a student will likely require more structured practice and a slower pace of instruction in that area. Stronger ability scores in an area indicate that the student will likely be able to learn content in that area faster and more independently.

When using ability scores, also consider the degree of Opportunity to Learn (OTL) each student may have. While avoiding stereotyping or overgeneralization, teachers should recognize that parental influence and access to educational resources play a significant role in ability test performance, especially for younger students. These same influences have a more direct and powerful effect on achievement test performance. This is why flexible grouping and retesting is essential for using ability scores to plan effective instruction or enrichment opportunities that can lead to remarkable growth in achievement scores.

There’s no doubt that differentiated classroom instruction is essential to providing the best educational outcomes for the greatest number of students. However, there are also more effective and less effective ways to go about it.  By taking a thoughtful, best-practices approach, schools can provide the learning environment that students need without burdening teachers with complex and time-consuming tasks. 

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