Differentiation in the Classroom

Differentiation in the Classroom Brittany Hunt University of Toledo Differentiated instruction in the classroom can be beneficially for every child’s needs to learn to their best ability. Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products, or the learning environment, the use of ongoing assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction. No student learns the same and differentiation is helping each student grow and succeed by meeting each individual needs.
Whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or a small group to change his or his teaching to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher is differentiating the instruction for the student(s). Four characteristics shape teaching and learning in an effective differentiated classroom (Tomlinson, 1995a): 1. ) Instruction is concept focused and principle driven. All students have the opportunity to explore and apply the key concepts of the subject being studied. All students come to understand the key principles on which the study is based.
Such instruction enables struggling learners to grasp and use powerful ideas and, at the same time, encourages advanced learners to expand their understanding and application of the key concepts and principles. Such instruction stresses understanding or sense-making rather than retention and regurgitation of fragmented bits of information. Concept-based and principle-driven instruction invites teachers to provide varied learning options. A “coverage-based” curriculum may cause a teacher to feel compelled to see that all students do the same work.

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In the former, all students have the opportunity to explore meaningful ideas through a variety of avenues and approaches. 2. ) Ongoing assessment of student readiness and growth are built into the curriculum. Teachers do not assume that all students need a given task or segment of study, but continuously assess student readiness and interest, providing support when students need additional instruction and guidance, and extending student exploration when indications are that a student or group of students is ready to move ahead. 3. ) Flexible grouping is consistently used. In a differentiated class, students work in many patterns. Sometimes hey work alone, sometimes in pairs, sometimes in groups. Sometimes tasks are readiness-based, sometimes interest-based, sometimes constructed to match learning style, and sometimes a combination of readiness, interest, and learning style. In a differentiated classroom, whole-group instruction may also be used for introducing new ideas, when planning, and for sharing learning outcomes. 4. ) Students are active explorers. Teachers guide the exploration. Because varied activities often occur simultaneously in a differentiated classroom, the teacher works more as a guide or facilitator of learning than as a dispenser of information.
As in a large family, students must learn to be responsible for their own work. Not only does such student-centeredness give students more ownership of their learning, but it also facilitates the important adolescent learning goal of growing independence in thought, planning, and evaluation. Implicit in such instruction is (1) goal-setting shared by teacher and student based on student readiness, interest, and learning profile, and (2) assessment predicated on student growth and goal attainment.
Teachers can differentiate at least four classroom elements based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile: * Content- what the student needs to learn or how the student will get access to the information; * Process- activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content; * Products- culminating projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit; and * Learning environment- the way the classroom works and feels.
Examples of differentiating content at the elementary level include the following: using reading materials at varying readability levels; putting text materials on tape; using spelling or vocabulary lists at readiness levels of students; presenting ideas through both auditory and visual means; using reading buddies; and meeting with small groups to re-teach an idea or skill for struggling learners, or to extend the thinking or skills of advanced learners. Several elements and materials are used to support instructional content. These include acts, concepts, generalizations or principles, attitudes, and skills.
The variation seen in a differentiated classroom is most frequently in the manner in which students gain access to important learning. Access to the content is seen as key. Align tasks and objectives to learning goals: designers of differentiated instruction view the alignment of tasks with instructional goals and objectives as essential. Goals are most frequently assessed by many state-level, high-stakes tests and frequently administered standardized measures. Objectives are frequently written in incremental steps resulting in a continuum of skills-building tasks.
An objectives-driven menu makes it easier to find the next instructional step for learners entering at varying levels. Differentiated instruction should be concept-focused and principle-driven. The instructional concepts should be broad-based, not focused on minute details or unlimited facts. Teachers must focus on the concepts, principles and skills that students should learn. The content of instruction should address the same concepts with all students, but the degree of complexity should be adjusted to suit diverse learners. Some examples of differentiating process or activities at the elementary level include the following: 1.
Using tiered activities through which all learners work with the same important understandings and skills, but proceed with different levels of support, challenge, or complexity; 2. Providing interest centers that encourage students to explore subsets of the class topic of particular interest to them; 3. Developing personal agendas (task lists written by the teacher and containing both in-common work for the whole class and work that addresses individual needs of learners) to be completed either during specified agenda time or as students complete other work early; 4.
Offering manipulative’s or other hands-on supports for students who need them; and 5. Varying the length of time a student may take to complete a task in order to provide additional support for a struggling learner or to encourage an advanced learner to pursue a topic in greater depth. Samples of differentiating products at the elementary level include: giving students options of how to express required learning (e. g. create a puppet show, write a letter, or develop a mural with labels); using rubrics that match and extend students’ varied skills levels; allowing students to work alone or in small groups on their products; and encouraging students to create their own product assignments as long as the assignments contain required elements. Items to which students respond may be differentiated so that different students can demonstrate or express their knowledge and understanding in different ways. A well-designed student product allows varied means of expression and alternative procedures and offers varying degrees of difficulty, types of valuation, and scoring. Examples of differentiating the learning environment at the elementary level include: 1. Making sure there are places in the room to work quietly and without distraction, as well as places that invite student collaboration; 2. Providing materials that reflect a variety of cultures and home settings; 3. Setting out clear guidelines for independent work that matches individual needs; 4. Developing routines that allow students to get help when teachers are busy with other students and cannot help them immediately; and 5.
Helping students understand that some learners need to move around to learn, while others do better sitting quietly (Tomlinson, 1995, 1999; Winebrenner, 1992, 1996). Characteristics of a differentiated classroom likely to be responsive to the needs of gifted (and other academically diverse) students are the following: * Teacher sensitivity to the varying needs of learners; * On-going assessment of student progress and modification of instruction based on assessment data; * Multiple learning options at a given time on many occasions; * Variable pacing; Respectful (interesting, important) tasks for all learners; * Use of flexible grouping (balancing like-readiness grouping, mixed-readiness grouping, grouping by interest, random grouping, whole class instruction, and individual/independent work); * Teacher use of a variety of instructional strategies (learning contracts, compacting, group investigation, complex instruction, interest centers, learning centers, tiered lessons, tiered products, graduated rubrics) that invite varying students to learn in a variety of ways; * Varied modes of assessment likely to give students maximum opportunity to demonstrate knowledge, understanding, and skill; and * Grading based, at least in significant measure, on student growth rather than in comparison to one another or to an absolute scale (Tomlinson, 1995a). Additional guidelines that make differentiation possible for teachers to attain is key to having a successful differentiated classroom, this includes: * Clarify key concepts and generalizations. Ensure that all learners gain powerful understandings that can serve as the foundation for future learning. Teachers are encouraged to identify essential concepts and instructional foci to ensure that all learners comprehend. * Use assessment as a teaching tool to extend rather than merely measure instruction.
Assessment should occur before, during, and following the instructional episode, and it should be used to help pose questions regarding student needs and optimal learning. * Emphasize critical and creative thinking as a goal in lesson design. The tasks, activities, and procedures for students should require that they understand and apply meaning. Instruction may require supports, additional motivation, varied tasks, materials, or equipment for different students in the classroom. * Engaging all learners is essential! Teachers are encouraged to strive for the development of lessons that are engaging and motivating for a diverse class of students.
Vary tasks within instruction as well as across students. In other words, an entire session for students should not consist of all drill and practice, or any single structure or activity. * Provide a balance between teacher-assigned and student-selected tasks. A balanced working structure is optimal in a differentiated classroom. Based on pre-assessment information, the balance will vary from class-to-class as well as lesson-to-lesson. Teachers should ensure that students have choices in their learning. Most classrooms employ single-size instruction. Thus, moving toward differentiated instruction requires considerable change on the part of teachers.
Changing habits or patterns of teaching in busy and pressure-laden classrooms is difficult and stressful. Teachers who are helped to understand specific benefits to students and to themselves of differentiated instruction may be more willing to risk the change than those who are not assisted in developing a solid rationale for change, or those who are mandated to change rather than assisted in doing so. The design and development of differentiated instruction as a model began in the general education classroom. The initial application came to practice for students considered gifted but whom perhaps were not sufficiently challenged by the content provided in the general classroom setting.
As classrooms have become more diverse, differentiated instruction has been applied at all levels for students of all abilities. Many authors of publications about differentiated instruction, strongly recommend that teachers adapt the practices slowly, perhaps one content area at a time. Additionally, these experts agree that teachers should share the creative load by working together to develop ideas and menus of options for students. Differentiated instruction is an instructional process that has excellent potential to positively impact learning by offering teachers a means to provide instruction to a range of students in today’s classroom situations.

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