By Savanna Flakes

There are some people who don’t think that differentiated instruction works. I suppose if you believe that differentiation is a bunch of specific strategies, a prescriptive methodology that all kids have to be doing something different all of the time, or that it is magic that only some teachers can create, then differentiating instruction for a class of diverse learners is impossible.  However, the basic truth is that “differentiation is a sequence of caring thoughts and common sense decisions made by teachers with a student-first orientation” (Adam Hoppe, 2010). What teacher does not naturally put the students first?  Teachers don’t need training on becoming compassionate or a rule book on how to notice students need a variety of learning opportunities. In fact, we even recognize that we need different professional learning opportunities, and we advocate for differentiated professional development.  What teacher doesn’t naturally help a student if they see him or her struggle with a concept and offer another way to solve the problem or express the answer? This is the foundation of differentiation: thinking about what is best for our students. We don’t need research to support that.

To those who say “differentiation has failed,” in essence you are saying that “teaching” has failed.  Differentiation is teaching and effective teaching is differentiated to account for differences in interest, learning style, background knowledge, and skills. The purpose of teaching is to facilitate learning, and learning doesn’t happen without differentiation. Differentiation is what makes our career field a distinguished art and science—not everyone can do it.

Some may feel that differentiation will only work if we return to the days when students of similar abilities were grouped together and placed in classes with other students whose learning needs paralleled their own.  Well, the results from that movement are in and they have been devastating. We have failed many students who don’t score high on economically-constructed IQ tests, biased TAG tests, and the hundreds of standardized tests by watering down their curriculum, placing them in less rigorous courses, and tracking them into ability groups such as the “Blue Jays” just because they are not on grade level with peers. Separating and secluding students from their “gifted” counterparts based on lower ability only results in lower expectations and “separate-not-equal” thinking.  The “one size fits all” approach is one variable that has resulted in the school to prison pipeline and the poor performance of students with disabilities and youths who are economically disadvantaged; in fact, ask a student who has dropped out of school why he or she did so.  You will probably hear an answer that resonates: “School didn’t work for me.”  How can one be satisfied with a teacher who does not differentiate when every respectable field differentiates for their constituents?  Would you continue to go to a doctor whose only prescription for every one of their patient’s illnesses, ranging from a headache to lung cancer is Advil?

So rather than continue to address more fallacies in the thought pattern that differentiation is beyond reach, I will make this article meaningful for my audience: teachers.  Specifically, I write to teachers who want to improve in differentiating instruction for the benefit of their students.  Like many others, including Carol Ann Tomlinson (one of our gurus on Differentiation), I suggest starting small with one goal, and then building your repertoire year by year to perfect it. Differentiation is a journey, not a one stop fix or an end point.

DifferentiationThe foundations of differentiation are building a collaborative classroom community, establishing consistent routines, and teaching students to have a Growth versus Fixed Mindset.  For resources on helping students develop a Growth Mindset, check out Carol Dweck’s mindsetworks.com.  Next, during planning, consider your essential questions, objectives, and summative task or assessment.  As you scope out your curriculum unit, consider areas where students usually struggle and/or possible misconceptions that commonly arise with a given concept and skill.  As you plan, think about informal or formal pre-assessments that could provide you with background on what students know so that the lesson is able to support and/or extend students’ learning. In reviewing this information, begin to plan a few ways to teach the concept, possibly using a hands-on approach, visual supports, cooperative learning, and a blended learning component from KhanAcademy.org or LearnZillion.com.  Think about the assessments that will be used, and consider providing students with a choice in how they will demonstrate their mastery on this concept, moving beyond just paper and pencil. At this point, you are differentiating instruction, which just so happens to be good for ALL students.  Check out daretodifferentiate.wikispaces.com for hundreds of pre-created learning menus on various subjects and objectives.  Feel free to contact me for helpful advice and resources to start or continue your differentiation journey.

At the end of every opinion on differentiation, we have this fact: We have students who need us as educators to have a growth mindset, to help them believe that intelligence is malleable and to value their contributions to our classroom. We owe it to our students to purposefully plan to account for their uniqueness, and although differentiation is not a panacea to all of the education sector’s dilemmas, consider that the alternative is… nothing.  Is differentiation expecting too much? I don’t think so.

Editor’s Note: This article has been edited to correctly attribute a quote to Adam Hoppe.

Savanna Flakes, EdS has taught a variety of subjects, grades, and learners in Washington DC, Pittsburgh, and Virginia.  She has received numerous honors and awards for her work in education. Savanna is currently an Inclusion Specialist, coaching administrators and teachers on effective inclusive and instructional practices.  Savanna has served as a Professor in the American University School of Education and Health and she presents nationally on topics such as Differentiation, Co-teaching, Universal Design for Learning, and Inclusion. As an Education Consultant, she works with school communities to build teacher leaders and utilize effective instructional practices for students with exceptionalities. For more information visit Inclusion For a Better Future at readingforabetterfuture.com.