Differentiated Instruction, Part I

David Hickson, Assistant Head of School for Academic Innovation

Each year, SSFS has a professional development “theme” that provides focus for the faculty’s ongoing improvement efforts.  Sometimes themes are school-wide and sometimes division-specific.  This year (in part as a result of the work and recommendations of the “Learning Differences Working Group”) the school-wide theme is “differentiated instruction.” 

Differentiated instruction is a popular phrase among educators, promising classroom approaches that stretch the classroom experience to encompass a wider range of student abilities, interests, and aptitudes. In this first of a multi-part blog-fest about this topic, I hope to impart a sense of what “differentiated instruction” means.  For me, two professional memories inform my understanding of differentiated instruction:  

A former math teacher colleague of mine was always quick to upend “normal” conversation.  Whenever a new acquaintance asked him “What do you teach?” meaning what subject did he teach, he would quip “Oh, I teach students.”   This iconic and iconoclastic colleague frequently impressed me with his efforts to assist any individual student striving to master math.   The spirit of his retort “I teach students” stuck with me over the years, reminding me that the core of teaching is people, not content.

My second memory is from early in my career during a job interview for a teaching position.  The Director of Studies asked me “What kind of students do you like to teach?”  I responded in a way that probably many young, bright-eyed, independent school teachers might respond: “I like to teach capable students who are really interested in the subject.”  “Of course,” he replied. “Capable, motivated students are easy to teach – they may not even need a teacher to learn something new.  The students who struggle are the test of a good teacher.”  His rejoinder stuck with me, and I have sought to live up to that rigorous professional standard; my worth as a teacher should be measured by the success of my most challenging students, not (just) the high-fliers.

To me, these ideas are the essence of differentiated instruction:  It’s about my students – all my students.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is a nationally-recognized guru of differentiated instruction.  In the foreword of her excellent, brief book How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (2nd Ed.), Tomlinson outlines both spirit and practice:

 “If we elect to use what we know about learning, and, in fact, about ourselves, as we craft classrooms, we acknowledge that students learn in varied ways – some by hearing, others by doing, some alone, others in the company of peers, some in rapid-fire fashion, others reflectively.  We acknowledge, too, that individuals are intrigued or even inspired by different topics or issues, and that curiosity and inspiration are powerful catalysts for learning.  To teach well is to attend to all these things.”   

This quote implies a great deal: a neurologically-based understanding of learning, the concept of multiple intelligences, the importance of human motivation and curiosity, and the role of a teacher.  It is a heady, lofty, rigorous vision of teaching.

In its most “pure” and structured form, differentiated instruction requires a teacher to create multiple pathways for understanding the same material and then match the path to the student. In mastering fractions, one path might involve manipulating objects, while another path might involve students creating visual images.  A third path might involve students devising their own practice exercises. There is no assumption that all the students complete the same activities; this challenges the equation “fair treatment = the same treatment.”  Over time, classwork fluctuates between whole-class, small group, and individual activities as students experience different and multiple ways to master material. The teacher may introduce the concept to the class, then assign different students to different tasks that will (hopefully) match the task with the student, enabling each student to further his/her knowledge of fractions in a more effective way.  To do this well, the teacher must know something about what works for each individual student, and also each student’s current skill with fractions.  Assessment happens early and often, permitting the teacher to gauge student knowledge and progress.  As Rick Wormeli (another guru) says, “When we differentiate, we do whatever it takes to help students learn by providing individual accommodations and making adjustments to our general lesson plans.” (fromDifferentiation: From Planning to Practice)

If differentiated instruction sounds demanding, that’s because it is.  Proponents of differentiated instruction claim that it is simple, that it’s just “good teaching.”  Simple in concept perhaps, but not easy to do effectively and consistently.  It is good teaching, but good teaching can be surprisingly elusive to define for every student, subject, grade level, etc. Formal differentiated instruction requires teachers to develop multiple paths within the same lesson (every lesson), to constantly adjust plans to fit the needs and experiences of the students, and to develop modes of teaching that may be outside the teacher’s own natural inclinations or personal learning experience.  Mastering differentiated instruction happens over the span of a teacher’s career, Once again, I defer to Tomlinson: “… a teacher in a differentiated classroom does not classify herself as someone who ‘already differentiates instruction.’ Rather, that teacher is fully aware that every hour of teaching, every day in the classroom can reveal one more way to make the classroom a better match for its learners.”

Next time: Further thoughts about differentiation

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