Tuesday, April 9, 2013

An Introduction to Differentiation by Carolyn Coil

One of education's current "hot topics" is differentiating curriculum and instruction.  When it is done well, this is one of the most effective ways to meet the needs of gifted and talented students, especially when those students spend the majority of their time in regular classrooms.  Concurrently, it is an appropriate and useful approach to use in teaching all other children.  In fact, once teachers begin differentiating for one group of students, the logical next step is to use differentiation strategies with the entire class.  

While most educators agree that differentiating is a great idea in principle, it takes time, effort, practice and teacher training to make it a reality.  It is not a quick fix for all of education's ills, nor is it a magic bullet to improve student achievement.  It isn't even a set of specific strategies which must be used, though there are many strategies which will help make differentiation more practical and doable for classroom teachers.  What differentiation is, then, is a way of looking at teaching with the premise of "one lesson, one activity doesn't fit everyone."  We could say it is an "Information Age" approach to teaching rather than a "Factory Model" approach where everyone in a classroom always does exactly the same thing.  

Teaching underpinned with the philosophy of differentiation gets teachers away from the "one size fits all" curriculum which really fits no one!  It encourages students to become more responsible for their own learning and to recognize and use their own strengths, thereby helping them become lifelong learners.
It is easy to see the value of differentiated instruction, not only for gifted students, but as a teaching philosophy that helps teachers meet the needs of all students in their classrooms.
Conceptually, differentiated instruction originated in U.S. Public Law 91-230, the Federal Gifted Education law first passed in the early 1970's.  The law states:
"These are children who require differentiated educational programs and/or services beyond those normally provided by regular school programs to realize their contribution to self and society."
Simply stated, differentiated instruction allows each student to learn at the depth, complexity and pace which is most beneficial to him.  This approach to teaching reaches more students more effectively because the same basic curricular objectives are presented in a variety of ways that are meaningful to students with different learning styles and ability levels. 

Differentiating curriculum and instruction provides students with a number of different options for learning including:
1. Different ways to take in the information
2. Differing amounts of time to complete work
3. Different levels of learning
4. Different assignments
5. Different means to assess what has been learned
Differentiation works best in a positive, encouraging classroom climate where students take responsibility and accept challenges to learn as much as they can!  Differentiation doesn't happen automatically.  In fact, learning how to plan and implement a differentiated curriculum takes training, effort, time and planning.  Therefore, it takes motivation on the part of teachers and support from administrators in the form of having workshops (or sending teachers to workshops) where the concepts are introduced, and then providing release time for planning differentiated activities and units and supplying resources for implementation.

During the past three or four years, I have been very fortunate to train teachers to implement differentiation strategies in school districts throughout the United States and in several other parts of the world.  While every group is different, I find some commonalities in terms of teachers' needs and responses when they are introduced to the concept of differentiation.  

Below are some suggestions:
1. Start small!  Most teachers are overwhelmed by the number of possible strategies that can be used in a differentiated curriculum.  I suggest that teachers begin with one or two strategies that fit best into what they are already doing and build from there.
2. Look for quality.  The quality of work done by stronger students usually vastly improves in a differentiated classroom. This is most likely due to the fact that in a differentiated curriculum all children can be appropriately challenged.  Happily, the quality of work done by struggling students usually improves as well.
3. Be aware of differences in learning styles. Differentiating curriculum should make teachers more aware of different learning styles and of the necessity for providing activities that fit both the way children learn and the appropriate level of their learning.  Training in Learning Styles and Modalities, Brain-Based Learning and Multiple Intelligences provides a good background for differentiating curriculum.
4. Give students choices. Allow them to meet class requirements using the learning style and level of complexity that works best for them.  While students like choices, these must be structured and monitored.  Most students are not skilled enough as independent learners to make good choices without some structure.  Additionally in an age of educational standards, choices must be designed to meet grade level standards and objectives.
5. Assess students before you teach.  Most of the time assessment comes after a unit of study has been taught.  In a differentiated curriculum it is best to find out what each student knows before you begin teaching and then plan learning activities accordingly.
6. Share successes and strategies with one another.  This encourages all teachers to try new ways to differentiate.  As more teachers in a school or school district are given training, time and encouragement, differentiation will become embedded in the way everyone works with children every day.  While there are many experts in the field on the topic of differentiation, those with the best know-how for your situation could well be other teachers who work in your school every day.  

Coil, C. (2007). An Introduction to Differentiation. E-Zine, Vol. 1, 1. www.carolyncoil.com