By Karen Robinson
Differentiation is one of the most ubiquitous topics in education today. Yet it continues to stir up great interest and concern as to how to implement it effectively in a diverse classroom. Across the United States, classrooms are becoming more visibly diverse while continuing to celebrate existing student variability, and teachers are faced with the tremendous task of ensuring that each student’s learning needs are met, addressed, and maximized in a complex and sophisticated manner. Add to this, new standards, teacher evaluation systems and initiatives, it is no wonder the differentiation experience is not always one of celebration and joy.
With any best practice, the key is to provide teachers with the knowledge, tools, and skills they need for implementation success. As teachers learn of the deep connection between assessment and differentiation, specific practices used to differentiate and suggested activities for differentiation, the anxiety produced around this best practice diminishes greatly.
To start the process, effective differentiation begins with pre-assessment. Knowing where students are in relation to the upcoming concept will assist teachers in planning effectively for students based on their readiness for the topic. Assessment is also the foundation for continued monitoring of differentiated tasks and should also be differentiated. This can happen when teachers adjust the number of items students are expected to respond to, how much time individual students are given to complete a task, the level of difficulty of the questions asked, and how much support teachers provide during the assessment.
Once there is an understanding of where each student is in relation to the new concept taught, teachers can then design instruction to match objectives created that promote flexibility of content delivery. Adapting the number and type of vocabulary words given, providing frames for oral use, or offering adapted texts to build comprehension are various ways to differentiate instruction to meet students where they are.
Carol Ann Tomlinson recently stated that, “Students are physically present in our classrooms, but psychologically absent.” From their perspective, teachers are not tuned in the needs of students and classrooms are uninteresting. I suspect that if students felt their individual learning needs were met, this would be a sentiment teachers could eliminate from their classrooms permanently.