Teaching Opinion

Response: More Ways To Differentiate Instruction -- Part Two

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 24, 2012 6 min read
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(This is the second post in a two-part series on differentiation. You can see the first post, which includes responses from Carol Tomlinson and Rick Wormeli, here)

I posed this question last week:

“What is the best advice you can give to a teacher about differentiating instruction?”

I’ve shared my response in an Ed Week Teacher article that I’ve co-authored with my colleague, Katie Hull Sypnieski. It’s titled “The Five By Five Approach To Differentiation Success.”

Today’s column includes commentaries from Dr. Kimberly Kappler Hewitt and Daniel K. Weckstein, and from Megan Allen, as well as ones from readers

Response From Dr. Kimberly Kappler Hewitt & Daniel K. Weckstein

Dr. Kimberly Kappler Hewitt serves as Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at University of North Carolina Greensboro and Daniel K. Weckstein is the Principal of Oakwood Junior High School in Dayton, Ohio. Kim and Dan co-authored Differentiation is an Expectation: A School Leader’s Guide to Building a Culture of Differentiation:

Interested in differentiating instruction in your classroom? Here’s how to jump-start your process.

* Recognize that differentiation is an approach to teaching and learning, not a list of strategies. Differentiation requires commitment to the idea that one size doesn’t fit all. Differentiation means that “fairness” isn’t everyone getting the same thing but rather everyone getting what she or he needs to maximize potential.

* Recognize and celebrate what you already do. It’s likely that you are already doing some differentiation in your classroom (e.g., flexible grouping for guided reading). Build on what you are already doing.

* Assess yourself to identify your strengths and areas for growth. Use a differentiation self-assessment rubric.

* Set reasonable goals/expectations for yourself. Once you identify ways in which you can grow in how you differentiate content, process, and product, identify one or two reachable goals for yourself.

* Learn! Model life-long learning by using books, DVDs, and websites about differentiation to grow as a teacher. We recommend The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners (Carol Ann Tomlinson, ASCD, 1999) and Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom (C. A. Tomlinson, ASCD, 2010), as well as the website Differentiation Central and the DVD series Differentiated Instruction in Action (ASCD, 2008).

* Be candid with your students, administrators, and parents about what you are doing. Folks tend to be skeptical of what they don’t understand. Generally, though, people respond well when they know that a teacher is differentiating instruction to help students soar. A helpful book for administrators might be our own book, Differentiation is an Expectation: A School Leader’s Guide to Building a Culture of Differentiation.

* Find a collaborative group of colleagues with whom you can learn and dialogue. Are you part of a Professional Learning Community (PLC)? If so, leverage it to support your differentiation efforts. If you don’t belong to a PLC, consider starting one with a couple of respected colleagues. PLCs can be an immensely powerful way to learn and grow as an educator. Learn more about PLCs here.

* Consider the implications for assessment. Differentiation has all sorts of implications for assessment (e.g., use of formative assessment, including pretesting for flexible grouping and use of performance assessment). The book Fair Isn’t Always Equal by Rick Wormeli provides a good introduction to these issues.

Response From Megan Allen

Megan Allen is Florida’s 2010 State Teacher of the Year, a part of The Center For Teaching Quality’s Hillsborough New Millennium Initiative work in Florida, and is currently Educator In Residence at the University of Central Florida. Megan also has just published a post on Ed Week about teacher preparation:

Our search committee asked job candidates a standard question: “How do you differentiate instruction?” Unfortunately, the answers were standard, too. After one interview, my colleague erupted, volcano-style: “Why do we assume differentiated instruction can only happen in guided reading?” Good point, my fiery-tempered friend.

Differentiated instruction can apply to any subject. I contemplated this truth recently while indulging in my latest exercise addiction: yoga. Sprawled across a wood floor in an uncomfortable position, wishing I had the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast, I realized something. My yoga instructor uses the same differentiation strategies in the studio that work in our K-12 classrooms:

Identify students’ starting points and interests. My yoga instructor begins every class by asking each student about any injuries and what they hope to accomplish in the session.

Offer ample opportunities for students to engage with concepts, stretch their thinking (or tendons), and reach their goals. I think of it as differentiated “construction” rather than “instruction"--I construct learning experiences using what I’ve discovered about students’ interests, abilities, and learning styles.

Provide students with avenues for growth. For each pose, my instructor demonstrates an easy starting pose, then bumps it up notch-by-notch. That way, I can start with the beginner’s pose and attempt more advanced versions the moment I’m ready.

Gauge students’ progress--and know when to push them. My yoga instructor’s informal observations help me to move forward and try new poses, even if they’re uncomfortable at first.

My yoga instructor’s teaching is student-centered--adapted for each student’s needs, interests, abilities, and learning styles. Yoga has improved my flexibility, but it’s also reminded me of the flexibility of differentiated instruction strategies. They’re not just for guided reading. As the yogi of our classrooms, we must use these tools to reach each student.

Response From Readers

bill writes:

I think one of the best ways to differentiate content is by using student-generated questions. You can teach the skills you want, but each student’s topic is by definition relevant to them. For skills, there have been two years where I worked a system wherein they all start with an identical skill list and then as they achieve proficiency in different areas, I give them a list of new skills from which to choose.

Ed Week Teacher blogger Coach G wrote:

I think we should think of it more as differentiated learning than differentiated instruction. Hand in hand with this is the recognition that real learning doesn’t happen when teachers are presenting information, but rather when students are applying that information--and teachers are there to coach them as necessary. Check-out my post for more on this....

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Kim, Dan, Megan, bill and Coach G for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” on Friday.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.