Building Increased Differentiation - Steve Barkley

Building Increased Differentiation

In a video clip, Carol Tomlinson explores the frequent question teachers have about how to get started bringing differentiation to their instruction and student learning. She points out that teachers are as different as are their students. That’s an important point for instructional coaches and leaders who identify that differentiation in learning tasks is critical to gaining increased student learning outcomes.

Differentiation is when the content, process or product is different to meet the student’s readiness, interest or learning profile.

Tomlinson, C.A. (1999). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners, Alexandria, VA:

I am currently engaged in a project that is focusing on increasing differentiation for learners by identifying current teacher practices and what next steps could be for that teacher. The project looks to provide teachers resources and guidance through an online portal.  I am intrigued by the approach as I have joked often about schools having the same workshop on differentiation for all their teachers to attend.

This diagram, designed by one of my colleagues, provides a starting point for coaching and teacher consideration.

First, what does the teacher know or need to find out about students’ readiness for the learning goal? (Tomlinson suggests that pre-assessment is a valuable beginning spot for teachers.) Does the student possess the necessary background knowledge and the learning production behaviors to participate in the learning? If not, what scaffolding may be necessary to support students’ initial attempts at learning? Or, has the student already completed the learning and understands, in which case the teacher needs to plan for advancing or deepening the learning outcome.

Secondly, which of the learning approaches: direct instruction, collaborative activity, or independent learning task might best align with students’ learning readiness for this particular learning outcome? What resources are available: human, tech, print, etc. for creating the learning opportunities?

The minimal starting point in teacher planning would be box five…what would historically have been called a “lesson plan” by many. The teacher designs direct instruction, usually whole group, which is built around a premise of students possessing the necessary background knowledge and learning behaviors to engage as participants in the learning event. Often teachers recognizing that some students need scaffolding address that need by having the whole group review the needed knowledge or learning skills at the beginning of direct instruction.

Next step for some teachers will be planning for boxes 4 and 6. By designing collaborative and independent activities around the focused learning outcome, students have additional ways to learn. Some teachers use these collaborative and independent activities to create an opportunity for small group instruction. This creates the classroom structure that is often used in elementary language arts blocks allowing the teacher to provide direct instruction to a small group needing scaffolding (box 8) and for advanced students (box 2).

In these classrooms, the activities that students are doing at collaborative and independent centers is usually the same and the level of differentiation only occurs during the teacher’s small group components.

As teachers start adding boxes 3 and 9, they adjust the independent tasks for students’ needing scaffolding and students who are advanced. Getting to boxes 1 and 7 now brings greater complexity to teacher planning. When are collaborative tasks given to students in groups of similar readiness and when are groups made up of differing readiness levels? Which grouping will have the greatest impact on student learning?

By adding differentiation of content, process or product to address students’ different interest or learning profile into each/any box, the teacher multiplies the opportunity for students to engage in the most meaningful learning tasks.

As students move from compliance to engagement to empowerment their choices and ownership can maximize their learning. By preparing students to design their own learning plans, we can move to personalization of learning. (Check teachers thoughts on engagement or empowerment on Amanda Funk’s @techieteach11~ flipgrid )

The goal: Having the largest number of students, spend the greatest amount of their time, in the most appropriate tasks to impact their learning.


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