Differentiation for All Learners
Updated: Nov 29, 2021
Fifteen years ago, as a special education teacher, I was often the “go to” when teachers had to differentiate their instruction. Differentiation was something seen as necessary to provide equity for students with special needs, but not as commonly considered for all populations. Over time, this perspective has shifted, and now, with traditional education flipped on its head, teachers are recognizing the urgency for this practice among all student groups.
It has always been presumptuous to assume that students in a given class are alike in their educational needs and preferences. It makes sense that kids have many similarities. However, acknowledging that children understand complex material at various times and with varying degrees is as much a reality as saying two students are different heights. This year with students’ learning paths and choices being more unique, fewer opportunities for in-person instructional guidance, and with less spring data than typical, it is necessary to have the mindset that all learners will need additional support and that educators must constantly adjust and differentiate work for all students.
What is Differentiation?
Differentiated instruction is an instructional model that considers the needs of all students, and recognizes them as different, even if they are in the same classroom. But it’s also important to note that differentiated instruction differs from individualized learning. While differentiation is based on recognizing individual needs, it does not mean that you customize lessons or learning to individual students--which would be exhausting and unsustainable.
As Carol Tomlinson notes, “Differentiated instruction is not simply giving a ‘normal’ assignment to most students and ‘different’ assignments to students who are struggling or advanced (Tomlinson 14).” Looking at differentiation as hitting individual deficits instead of addressing student patterns can lead to more struggles. Students internalize feelings of worth and ability in a subject when they feel that they are receiving work that is 'easier' than a standard or norm.
Instead, in a differentiated classroom there are many things happening at the same time--teachers and students choosing the path for learning. Teachers and students working together to make decisions about the criteria for sucess. Some students may be completing work independently, while others are working in small groups. The teacher in a mixed ability, differentiated class plans for multiple avenues of learning for varied needs instead of “normal” and “different” (Tomlinson 15).
Key Pillars of Differentiation
Some instructors may worry that differentiation will be a time-consuming task. However, differentiation lends itself to remote and hybrid learning. As you work to make lessons more interactive and engaging, you can also make them more personalized. To understand how to apply differentiation to the online and hybrid classrooms, it’s important to know the 3 pillars of differentiated instruction.
Content: Content is what we teach or what we want students to learn. When differentiating content we can adapt what we teach, and provide multimodalities in accessing what we want them to learn.
Process: Process is sense-making. After students learn information, they need time to analyze, apply and question the material. In school this often involves an activity that takes students from their current point of understanding to a more complex level. In a differentiated classroom, students are offered multiple entry points of understanding.
Products: High quality product assignments (performance tasks) help students extend what they know over time, and can be a great tool for assessing students' knowledge. In a differentiated class, teachers may substitute some tests with product assignments, or combine the two together.
As teachers consider designing differentiated instruction for groups of learners, they must first get to know their students in terms of: readiness, interests and learning profile. A student’s readiness level refers to a student’s knowledge or skill level around a content area. A student’s readiness level is influenced by their life experience, background or previous learning experiences. What's more, knowing a student’s interests allows teachers to better understand what choices to provide students when creating learning pathways. Lastly, a student’s profile is both the preferred learning pathway of the student and also the preferred learning environment.
Suggestions for Differentiating Instruction using Technology
Differentiation with technology allows teachers to reach students in different modalities, while also varying the rate of instruction, complexity and teaching strategies to reach the greatest number of learners.
One way to differentiate instruction is to tier content and activities. When teachers tier content students complete the same type of activity, but the content varies in difficulty. Typically, students are put in groups depending on their readiness. Newsela for secondary and Readworks.org for all grades allows teachers to assign reading material that is appropriately challenging. IXL can be another tool that is easy for teachers to use to differentiate learning by assigning specific skills to students based on readiness. Gizmos for Science can be a great tool for students who are ready to independently explore topics, while others may be guided by a teacher.
Second, teachers can differentiate content and product by varying materials. When reading a class novel, provide visual supports to students or see if there is a graphic novel version of the text. In addition, even if a child isn’t provided an audio accommodation-- provide one so that students who prefer to listen to readings have the ability to do so. Edpuzzle and flipped classroom videos are great ways to deliver content in ways that make learning more personalized and interesting. In addition, I cannot express enough how much I love Seesaw for differentiating the process for student learning. In the application, students have the ability to choose how they respond to information and show teachers their understanding of material. For the upper grades, Hyperdocs and Choice Boards can provide students with a variety of entry points tailored to their interests and readiness.
To go along with varying materials, teachers should consider differentiating content and product by considering several presentation models. Teachers can offer a pre-recorded mini-lesson posted on Flipgrid, which then leads to a virtual class discussion. Students can then choose to explain their learning in writing or through a video or audio dialogue. Canva and Adobe Spark are both great tools for creating infographics. Flippity can turn information from a boring spreadsheet to a variety of different presentation models. Another great tool to “show it” is Google Jamboard which not only allows teachers to relay content, but also is a platform for student collaboration. Both PearDeck and Nearpod allow students to view media, take interactive polls and provide feedback to teachers and their peers in real time.
For students who struggle with learning a new concept or skill, scaffolds are a great way to offer multiple entry points. Seesaw and Google Classroom allow teachers to create assignments for different groups of learners, differentiating for accommodations, readiness and interests or for hybrid and remote learning. InsertLearning and ActivelyLearn are great tools for differentiating text questions within a reading passage and incorporating media to support all learners. In addition, videos made with Loom or Screencastify can be shared with students to support different learning profiles.
Quizlet allows teachers to provide extra vocabulary practice for students. Editing tools, such as Kami, allow teachers to highlight key text and passages for students to focus their attention. Even more than that, knowing your students can help you to provide appropriate graphic organizers designed to fit their needs. Sometimes, a scaffold can be as simple as creating an organized space for students to show their work.
Organizing time and materials is a skill that takes strong executive functioning skills and can be a huge learning curve during remote and hybrid learning. Learning contracts--or work planned and negotiated between the teacher and student--are great ways to improve organization and make sure that content is completed. Google Keep and Google Calendar are digital tools that lend themselves to this type of shared contract. In real-time, students, parents and teachers are able to see completed work and the work that still needs finishing. These tools paired with an organized Google Classroom can help to make most students successful.
Where to Start with Classroom Implementation
Now, although we have all learned what differentiation is, and what tools can help support a differentiated classroom--it can still feel overwhelming to begin. There is no one correct way to differentiate your classroom, and given an assortment of instructional strategies and practices, differentiation can take a variety of forms. I encourage you to take small, gradual steps that you build upon each year. Below is a list of ways you may pull from to get started:
Select one element (content, process or product) to differentiate
Start with a class of students that’s easy to work with
Choose one prep (subject)
Begin with formative assessments to get to know students
Carry out only one differentiated activity within a unit
Teachers are as different as kids are, and there is not a single way to start or master differentiation. Educators may feel better thinking of differentiation as a marathon rather than a sprint, and that it is perfectly fine to start small with differentiation and add on each year. Do remember every day how much you are accomplishing, and give yourself credit for that!
Gregory, Gayle, and Carolyn Chapman. Differentiated Instructional Strategies: One Size Doesn't Fit All. Second Edition ed., vol. 1, Thousand Oaks, Corwin Press, 2007. 1 vols.
Tomlinson, Carol Ann. How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms. 2nd ed., Alexandria, ASCD, 2001.