Differentiation

For Mentors to Share

Differentiation is one of those things that is hard to talk about in a forum like this because the whole point of differentiation is that it is highly contextual. With that in mind, what follows are some thoughts on good principles to keep in mind as you approach your planning.

It is also useful to note here that (like most things in education) there are debates between proponents of “differentiated instruction” and “universal design for learning”. While there is merit in getting to grips with the underlying theories of these approaches, Pātaka is focused on providing practical support in your classroom and so here we are unashamedly drawing on both approaches and encourage you to pick up the tools that feel like a good fit for you and will get you going.


Begin by understanding that differentiation is not an optional extra – it is necessary if you want teaching and learning to happen in your classroom.  Therefore, you can either anticipate students’ needs and plan differentiation into your lessons or you can scramble to adapt on-the-fly as students’ disengage. I think we all know what is going to make for a happier experience for everyone … 


As well as understanding that differentiation is foundational, we need to appreciate that it operates in two spheres – we can differentiate by task OR by scaffold. It is important to use these two different approaches purposefully and in ways that complement each other. This post from Jackie Gerstein gives a useful summary of Universal Design for Learning and how different approaches to differentiation by task or scaffold (what she refers to as the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of teaching) can be used effectively.


Once we understand that differentiation must be contextualised and address task/scaffolding, we can begin to equip ourselves with specific approaches to do this work.

In her “Starter Kit for Differentiated Instruction” Jennifer Gonzalez, at the Cult of Pedagogy, highlights learning from others – particularly teachers in action, and gathering a set of tools that fit with your practice. 

Gonzalez begins by recommending Carol Ann Tomlinson’s book How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (2001). This short, practical guide from Tomlison is a very useful place to start in filling your toolkit. 

Tomlinson understands that differentiation is a process that teachers will work on throughout their careers. She advocates setting the goal of mastering 3 or 4 low-prep. approaches and 1 high-prep. approach each term – watch her here to understand more.

RESOURCES

I would encourage you to spend time exploring the resources referred to above. Here are a couple more that may be helpful:

This comprehensive model from the University of Virginia describes all that is encompassed in differentiated instruction.
Tomlinson summarises 5 key aspects of differentiated instruction in this helpful video.

Referencing

Tomlinson, C. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms (2nd ed.). ASCD.

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