For more than a decade, the DataWORKS tagline has been “All students successfully taught grade-level work every day.” This is an important concept that we truly believe in, as it places the same expectations on all students, in every classroom. Every classroom has a diverse student population, however. Some students need additional support before tackling grade-level work. Other students require enrichment activities taking them beyond grade-level work in order to keep them fully engaged. This is where differentiation comes in. Differentiation is the process of adjusting lessons to teach the same grade-level content to diverse learners.
Differentiation BEFORE a Lesson
Even before a lesson begins, teachers have the opportunity to provide support for their students. Through daily interaction with the class, no one is more aware of a class’s particular needs than a teacher. Careful planning with awareness of a student population’s unique needs is crucial in designing a lesson that reaches a diverse group of learners.
Reduce Difficulty but Maintain Complexity
In lesson planning, the simplest means of differentiation comes from reducing the difficulty but maintaining the complexity of the content being taught. In the context of learning, difficulty describes the effort involved, whereas complexity describes the thinking involved. More effort in completing a task does not necessarily correlate with higher-order thinking. Students can think at a high level without the task being unnecessarily taxing.
In a lesson in which students are first learning to calculate percentages, difficulty can be reduced by simplifying the numbers used in the calculations (e.g., calculating 5% of $6 rather than 7.25% of $9.98). By decreasing the difficulty in the calculations, students can instead focus on the thinking involved in the process of calculating percentages. Then students will have the necessary skills when later progressing to more difficult calculations.
Reduce (or Bypass) Sub-Skills
Often, a lack of mastery of a sub-skill can be the limiting factor in students learning a new skill. This can be prevented by either reducing the difficulty of a sub-skill or, in certain cases, bypassing it completely. Lowering the reading level of a text can allow students who cannot read on grade-level to learn grade-level skills. While allowing the use of calculators can provide students the opportunity to learn a new math skill by bypassing missing arithmetic sub-skills.
Differentiation DURING a Lesson
Use Multiple Research-Based Instructional Strategies
Using many effective instructional strategies is likely second nature for experienced teachers, but it can be critical in ensuring that students learn complex material (especially in a class with diverse learners). Different instructional strategies allow teachers to reach all styles of learners during a single lesson.
Adjust the Length of Instructional Time
The importance of instructional time has been addressed previously, but it’s worth noting that this is a variable that can be adjusted to ensure that a high percentage of learners are reached during a lesson. At DataWORKS, we like to say that the students dictate the pace of the lesson. Through consistent Checking for Understanding, we can monitor student progress during a lesson and adjust instructional time accordingly. If students are successful with material, it may be time to step back as teachers and increase the pace of the lesson to avoid being unnecessarily repetitious. Conversely, if students are struggling during the lesson, more instructional time may be necessary to ensure that all students completely understand a topic.
Differentiate for Advanced Students
Often, differentiation for high-performing students is just as important as differentiating for low-performing students. The opposite of many of the differentiation strategies described above can be implemented to accommodate advanced students. Increasing the complexity of math problems can provide advanced students with enough of a challenge to keep them engaged in a lesson. Rather than reducing the reading level of a passage, advanced students may benefit from more difficult text. Additionally, allowing advanced students to expand on peers’ answers to Checking for Understanding questions or teaching their partner during a Pair-Share can be useful in classes with broad levels of learners.
Differentiation AFTER a Lesson
Intervention – Support for Grade-Level Content
Occasionally, some students may need additional support after a lesson is completed. The simplest solution is to provide these students (easily identified through the use of whiteboards and CFU) re-teaching through an in-class intervention. After releasing the majority of the class to work on Independent Practice problems, struggling students can receive additional guidance from the teacher until they are fully prepared to complete the task independently.
Remediation – Support for Below-Grade-Level Content
At some point, students need to be caught up on lacking sub-skills that were bypassed when teaching grade-level content. However, remediation during class time should be limited as it reduces time spent on grade-level material. For that reason, the ideal time for remediation is out of class, using tools such as math fact workshops, reading clinics, and tutoring. These options provide students with necessary remediation without taking away class-time focus on grade-level standards.