Differentiation: How and Why it Works

There have always been buzzwords in education-- perhaps now more than ever. For example, current phrases like personalized learning plans, proficiency-based learning and flexible pathways are hot faculty meeting topics in Vermont. But are they just buzz? Or do these concepts have staying-power?  

If we view these topics through the lens of differentiated instruction -- something that educators and researchers agree improves student outcomes -- then it’s more than likely these buzzwords could be with us for awhile.

Personalized learning plans, proficiency-based learning and flexible pathways all stem from the notion that students are unique and learn in ways that are particular to them. Differentiating learning means educators build on the unique experiences and understandings of each student, and continuously tailor learning opportunities for every student.  

When educators focus on differentiated instruction, they can feel passionate, excited and overwhelmed. An example is Laurel, a middle grades reading teacher at Kurn Hattin Homes, a non-profit located in Westminster, Vermont, which serves as a charitable home and school for children affected by tragedy, social or economic hardship or family disruption.  She shares, “I believe in differentiated instruction and its benefits to my students. I know I can do it. It takes planning and implementation time. Students have to get used to it. But, it’s worth it in the long run.”

Common questions educators may ask include, “How can I adapt materials I use for the whole class to use with smaller groups without overwhelming myself with planning?” and “How do I effectively implement differentiation in the classroom?”

Teaching to learner differences involves new ways of thinking about five essential elements:

  • Pre-assessment: Responding to learner differences requires teachers to be informed as much as possible by detailed knowledge about students' specific strengths, needs, and areas for growth across multiple dimensions including students’ academic literacies, students’ motivations and orientations to learning, differences in how students learn, and personal characteristics.

  • Assessment: Providing students with multiple ways to demonstrate knowledge and skills providing both teachers and students with more accurate understanding of students' knowledge and skills.

  • Content: Making content accessible by modifying and clarifying content in response to a student's readiness level, interests, or learning profile (see types of pre-assessment).

  • Instruction (including both engagement & monitoring learning during instruction): Providing students with multiple ways to access content improves learning and monitoring students’ progress to provide information to the teacher about how they might adjust instruction and to provide high quality feedback to the student.

  • Environments: A classroom structured to respond to student differences should support, and is supported by, an evolving community of learners that is supportive, strengths based, and growth oriented.

Sometimes educators have the impression that differentiating instruction means simply allowing students to show what they know through different pathways. But as the information above illustrates, differentiating is more than just giving kids the opportunity to demonstrate understanding in different ways.

If differentiated instruction is an approach broadly supported in the research literature, why is it still not widely and effectively used? There is evidence to suggest that most teachers feel ill prepared to teach students with diverse learning needs.

To put it simply: Differentiation for the whole class and individuals is hard.

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Commentary by Becky Wipfler

Becky Wipfler is UVEI’s Elementary Education Coordinator.  Other commentaries by Becky, can be found at http://uvei.edu/blog/322-school-district-partnerships-reinvigorate-teaching-practices,  http://uvei.edu/blog/318-project-based-learning-why-it-matters and http://uvei.edu/blog/287-my-evolution-as-a-literacy-coach

You can follow her on Twitter @UVEIwipfler