What is differentiation?

What is differentiation?.

Differentiated Instruction

By using a variety of instructional models and strategies, teachers differentiate instruction. Read chapter two in your text and, in a two-page paper, not including title and reference pages, discuss the concept of the differentiation.

Be sure to address the following topics in your paper:

  • What is differentiation?
  • What theoretical or research background is there for this instructional method?
  • How does it work? What will it look like in your own classroom? Give an example of how you could differentiate instruction.
  • What experiences have you had with this method?
  • What do you still need to learn about this method? What questions do you have about this method?
  • What conclusions can you draw about this method?

Please refer to chapter two in your text, other resources, and your experiences to complete this assignment. Cite at least one source in addition to your text. The source does not need to be scholarly. Make sure your paper is in APA format.

Read from your text, Curriculum and Instruction for the 21st Century:

  • Chapter 2: Understanding Learners and Learning
    • This chapter emphasizes the ways that learners bring unique individual differences to the learning process and their needs for a supportive learning environment to help them success

2.3 Learning Environments That Support Student Differences

The previous discussions emphasize that while students of the same age may share some common characteristics, when it comes to how they learn, each one is different in an individual way. A single approach, where all are expected to complete the same work in the same way, works for some students, but not for others. The standards and frameworks clearly require teachers to create learning environments that that enable each learner to meet high standards. Here we review two frameworks for establishing learning environments that support student differences—differentiated instruction (DI) and Response to Intervention (RTI).

Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction (DI) is a broad framework for supporting student differences by varying instruction and making adaptations that consider students’ strengths and weaknesses (Tomlinson, 2001). The process for considering DI reminds us that while our goal is to teach the content, we are also teaching the content to a child (Tomlinson, 2001).

Figure 2.1 (Tomlinson, 2010) is a graphic depiction of the DI model. The first level explains general principles of best teaching practices, the foundational aspects that must be in place for differentiation to be effective. The second level depicts curricular elements, the means by which teachers can differentiate, and includes adjustments to content, process, and product, as well as affect and learning environment. The third level reminds teachers that all differentiation is in response to the varied characteristics that student bring to the classroom. Adjustments to teaching practice that work for one group of students may not work for others and are highly dependent on the uniqueness of individual learners. The fourth level offers suggestions for instructional strategies that make it all work together.

Level 1: General Principles of Differentiation

Differentiated instruction begins with a solid foundation of effective practice. The foundations should include attention to respectful tasks, quality curriculum, teaching up, flexible grouping, continual assessment, and building community. The outcomes of differentiating are likely to be disappointing unless these elements are in place (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010).

Respectful tasks (Figure 2.1) are purposeful, meaningful, engaging, appropriately rigorous and challenging, and connected to learning outcomes. Respectful tasks allow students to explore skills and understanding at appropriate degrees of difficulty. For example, even though all students sometimes have to do practice exercises to build fluency, it is not acceptable for struggling learners to only be assigned basic skills drills and never allowed to participate in activities where they can apply the information.

A quality curriculum (Figure 2.1) is the translation of standards into action—the goals, methods, materials, and assessments that communicate what students should know, understand, and demonstrate. A quality curriculum focuses on the big ideas that all students should understand. There may be differences in students’ understanding of complexity or application, but the essential or big ideas remain constant.

Teaching up (Figure 2.1) means that students should be working at difficulty levels that are just above their individual comfort levels. This concept is grounded in learning and motivational theories, such as the sociocultural theory’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which states that learning occurs when students encounter “just manageable difficulties” (Vygotsky, 1978). Similarly, in the mindset theory, proposed by Dweck (2007), students learn that hard work results in successful growth. Teaching up is an important concept because all students deserve equitable access to a curriculum that prepares them for the future. For most of the past 50 years, schools in the United States have been organized around concepts of tracking students according to perceived ability levels. High-ability students were placed in advanced classes; lower-ability students were placed in classes that focused on remediation. Lower-ability students never had the chance to experience rich and challenging learning opportunities (Tomlinson & Javius, 2012). Teaching up ensures that all students are given the opportunity to tackle demanding work. Teachers can implement this concept by planning first for an activity that would challenge the most advanced learner. Then, they can modify the activity for students who are currently (or temporarily) responding at lower-readiness levels.

Flexible grouping (Figure 2.1) gives teachers the means to balance instructional demands with student needs. Throughout the semester or the year, students should have frequent opportunities to interact in meaningful and productive ways with a variety of other students. There are times when the entire class will need to work as a whole, others when it makes sense for small groups to work together, and others for students to demonstrate what they have learned alone. The hallmark of these groups is their flexibility in response to the instructional activity. Students may be grouped by interest, by same-skill for additional help, or with a variety of readiness levels.

Continual assessment (Figure 2.1) is the measurement of student responses to curriculum and instruction that informs teachers on what and how the content is understood. This includes pre-assessments to determine student entry points, formative assessments that inform planning and support variance, and summative assessments that offer varied modes of expression. Assessment can include traditional and nontraditional evaluation methods, including teacher observation, self-assessment, and project work.

Building community provides students with a sense of belonging. Teachers work to build a learning community where students help each other and share in each other’s success. Students feel safe and accepted enough to show what they know and express their thoughts without fear of reprisal or ridicule. They feel valued. A sense of community is built through a climate of shared decision making, mutual celebration of success, and fostering individual students’ identification as learners.

Level 2: Curricular Elements of Teaching

Teachers plan for differentiation in three essential curricular areas: content (the input, or what is taught), process (the methods or procedures for teaching), and product (a format for expressing learning). Teachers also attend to, and adjust for, student affect (how they express emotions and interest) and work to create a positive learning environment (a climate conducive to learning) (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010). These concepts are depicted in the second level of the DI model in Figure 2.1. Although presented separately, quite a bit of overlap occurs between them. For example, teachers often think through the process, or teaching methods, while finding appropriate content (Tomlinson, 2001).

Content is what we want the students to learn (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010). Differentiating content refers to varying the means by which teachers present the concept. Most of the time, this variation involves finding multiple ways to present content without changing it by providing models, examples, and differing formats for the same or similar information. The rich array of materials available on the Internet makes it easier to differentiate by content, but this concept is not just limited to online information. The same or similar concept can be achieved by collecting a variety of materials in multiple formats and with varying difficulty or interest levels (video, multimedia presentations, texts, primary sources, trade books, children’s’ literature, magazines, or newspapers).

Process refers to the activities and strategies that students use to make sense of the content (Tomlinson, 2001). Process provides a bridge between content and the product. Differentiating process refers to giving students a choice of activities or multiple opportunities to think through and use the material they are learning. Offering a variety of bridges is especially important because the manner by which students come to understand or to “own” the content is different for everyone. It also gives students the opportunity to explore key concepts and manipulate the content in such a way that they take ownership of material, internalizing the concepts or using the skill fluently.

A differentiated product refers to flexible opportunities for students to demonstrate what they have learned through the expression of key ideas, transfer of knowledge, or application of skills. It represents learning over a longer period of time and is usually not something that a student generates after a single lesson or a few activities. A differentiated product has a range of requirements and expectations for learning, including the degree of difficulty and the means of evaluation (Hall, Strangman, & Meyer, 2011; Tomlinson, 2001). A differentiated product emphasizes quality over quantity and should be challenging, allowing students to stretch what they know and understand, even beyond the initial content. For example, a differentiated product for fifth-grade English/Language Arts in the area of informative or explanatory writing could give the student a choice of formats (newspaper article, letter, blog post, PowerPoint, or other multimedia presentation). The range of requirements might include a clear statement of the topic, an inclusion of facts, definitions, details and examples, and an appropriate conclusion. Expectations for difficulty level would be described (e.g., using at least five new vocabulary words, grammar and sentence complexity, etc.), as well as the method of scoring and number of resources. This structure gives students considerable choice in developing a product that would accommodate their interests and other learner characteristics.

Affect is the expression of the emotions or feelings that students bring to learning. Affective states influence how students learn and process new material. Teachers who differentiate the content, product, and process also understand the influence of affect. They work to know their students’ emotions and feelings well enough to offer encouragement when needed, and to spark the curiosity and interest needed to move learning forward (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010). Effective teachers are able to recognize emotional states of their students and respond in ways that positively impact learning (Goleman, 2006).

Adjustments to content, product, and process take place within a classroom learning environment that is shaped by teacher beliefs and actions. A differentiated classroom has a learning environment that is physically and emotionally welcoming (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010). A physically welcoming learning environment is one that maximizes the space with arrangements that are responsive to students, knowing that some may need a consultation corner, space for collaboration, or a space for working with manipulatives. An emotionally welcoming learning environment demonstrates, through procedures and grouping practices, a respect for individual differences and shared decision making. Students feel safe and have access to a range of resources that make them feel respected, involved, challenged, and supported.

Level 3: Differentiating in Response to Student Characteristics

The third level of the DI model (Figure 2.1) asks teachers to plan ahead for differences in student characteristics—readiness, interest, and learning profiles that they are already aware of in their class or that they are most likely to see—and then to adjust the content, process, and product accordingly. The model guides teachers to look for manageable strategies that meet the needs of most learners at the same time, rather than trying to accommodate student characteristics on an individualized basis.

Readiness describes what students are prepared to do or learn next. Differentiating instruction according to readiness means aligning the instructional task with students’ skills and understanding. As students’ knowledge and skills increase, so does their level of readiness for the next task (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010).

Readiness varies and changes with the learning task (Tomlinson, 2001). There are times when students grasp concepts very quickly, and other times when those same students might need more time for processing. When a concept is new to a student, the materials or activities should be at a basic, foundational level. If the concept is one where the basics are quite familiar, students need materials and activities that transform what is learned to new applications.

Interest is what engages students and inspires their curiosity (Brophy, 2010; Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010). Interest is often an emotional experience; students are motivated by what they like. Determining what students are interested in is a relatively easy process. Just ask them, use an online interest inventory, or develop a questionnaire.

Interest can also be a cognitive experience (Brophy, 2010). If students find the learning activities meaningful and worthwhile, they will work to get the intended benefits—perhaps a new skill or the opportunity to work with certain peers. New interests are developed through frequent opportunities for choice and autonomy. Strategies such as cooperative and problem-based learning provide those choices and are ways to socialize student motivation (Middleton & Jansen, 2011).

Learning profile refers to how students process information and interact with new ideas based on intelligence preferences, gender preferences, and cultural differences (Tomlinson, 2001). Teachers can differentiate in this manner by offering options for learning that are efficient or are a good fit. For example, differentiating in response to intelligence preference might involve a combination of visualization, step-by-step directions, self-checking materials, or interaction with peers. Gender preferences may be accommodated through choices in reading material or by setting up competitive teams or debates. Cultural differences can be honored by understanding students’ different styles of interacting with each other or providing examples that are relevant to students’ neighborhood or local knowledge base.

Progress Monitoring

Progress monitoring measures students’ responsiveness to tiered supports (at all levels) and identifies necessary adjustments to instruction. These assessments are given periodically (at least monthly; often on a weekly basis) to determine if students are progressing toward the targeted goals with the intervention provided. Progress monitoring can be used to determine if students need more intense intervention. Changes to the intervention may include lengthening the time or increasing the frequency of instruction, reducing the size of the group, adjusting the level of instruction, or adding the services of a curriculum specialist or special educator.

Data-based Decision Making

Data-based decision making is a process for evaluating instructional effectiveness and making instructional decisions using data from progress monitoring and other school-wide assessments. On an individual student level, data from progress monitoring indicate the need for a change in instruction or level of support. Data from school-wide assessments are used to evaluate the success of the core curriculum and make decisions on instructional strategies or skills that should be emphasized. For example, if a large number of students showed difficulty with a particular skill on quarterly progress-monitoring assessments, the teachers might add additional strategies or interventions to teach those skills.

Implementing RTI

While most states are implementing some form of RTI, there is no single accepted model for implementation. Districts and schools may implement an RTI framework differently, based on their own unique characteristics. Some states use it as a school-improvement strategy, and either recommend or require it as an intervention for struggling schools. Other states and districts view RTI as a way to complement Common Core Standards as a strategy that allows teachers to know when students are behind and when to provide support or intensify efforts at differentiated instruction. RTI processes are best implemented by teams of teachers, and the PLC (Chapter 1) is especially suited for this process.

One school-based example of using an RTI process to offer weekly tiered support is the “Reteach and Enrich” program implemented in the Vail (AZ) School District. The website Edutopia offers a snapshot of Vail’s student support procedures.


What is differentiation?

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