Teaching Opinion

Response: Several Ways To Differentiate Instruction

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 17, 2012 9 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series on differentiation)

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.”

I’ll limit my contribution here to sharing a useful link to The Best Resources On Differentiating Instruction.

Experts in the field, though, have agreed to share their responses here, so today I’m pleased to publish answers from Carol Tomlinson and Rick Wormeli. More guests will respond in Part Two of this series on Thursday, and I’ll be including comments from readers then, too.

Response From Carol Tomlinson

Carol Tomlinson is an internationally-recognized leader and author in the field of differentiated instruction. She has an excellent website that’s appropriately called “Differentiation Central” :

My journey with differentiation began in my middle school classroom when it was quite clear that my one-size-fits-all approach to teaching was, in fact, not fitting many of my students. While the idea of differentiation (teaching with student differences in mind) is quite an old one, there were no books on differentiation at the time, no conferences, and certainly no web sources of help.

So some colleagues and I began to ask ourselves some fairly straightforward, if daunting, questions. Could we provide more than one way to give students access to information? How could we meet with kids in small groups to attend to particular learning needs? Did it sometimes make sense for students to have different homework, and how would we handle that? What would we say to students who asked why people were doing different tasks at a particular time in class? How did we keep from seeing kids as bluebirds, buzzards, and wombats--and how did we keep them from seeing themselves that way?

There were many more questions, of course. Sometimes we landed on viable answers right away. Sometimes we muddled along for a while trying to find a solution that felt right. Here’s the point. We kept going because we could see that our work was making a difference for the kids we taught, even when we were clumsy for a time with our thinking.
My view of differentiation is still much the same. It’s not a mystery formula that only a few can understand. It’s not a series of mandatory instructional strategies. It’s not a recipe. It’s problem solving on behalf of kids. One step at a time, all teachers can do that. Working with like-minded colleagues makes the journey smoother and more rewarding.

Here are a few other suggestions.

1) Start small. Begin with whatever steps feel right to you. Differentiation isn’t so hard. Change is. Go in a direction that’s likely to result in some success. Start with one subject or one class. Start with 10 minutes a day or 15 minutes a week. Just start.

2) Study your students. The more you see them as distinct individuals--the more you understand them as human beings--the clearer your motivation will be.

3) Use formative assessments regularly (ones you develop to be close to your teaching--not standardized ones). As you see where your students are in relation to your learning goals, you’ll understand more clearly what you need to do next to help students move ahead from their starting points.

4) Invest time in thinking through classroom routines--giving directions, handling transitions, starting and stopping tasks, using materials effectively. Envision how you want things to work and help your students do the same.

5) Make the students your partners in creating a classroom that works well for everyone. Don’t do differentiation to them, do it with them. Explain your thinking and ask for their input. Enlist their help in making sure the classroom runs smoothly. Get their input on which approaches work best for them.

Differentiation just asks of us what we commend for our students: flexible thinking, intellectual risk-taking, problem-solving--and a deepening sense of humanity


Response From Rick Wormeli

Rick Wormeli is a well-known author, workshop leader and educator. He has written books on the topic of differentiation, and I’d recommend you read another essay he’s written titled Differentiated Instruction: Setting the Pedagogy Straight.

There is no one book, video, presenter, or Website that will show everyone how to differentiate instruction. Let’s stop looking for it. One size rarely fits all. Our classrooms are too diverse and our communities too important for such simplistic notions.

Instead, let’s realize what differentiation really is: highly effective teaching, which is complex and interwoven; no one element defining it. Reading multiple books and watching many videos on accomplished teaching as well as listening to presenters speak on effective teaching and augmenting all those insights with perspectives gained from on-line communities, faculty conversation, PLC’s, and dedicated Websites prepares teachers best for teaching, i.e. differentiated instruction.

Professor and differentiation expert, Diane Heacox, reminded me a few years ago that differentiation is foremost a mindset. It’s only 10% craft and mechanics of pulling it off. If we’re attentive to the results of formative assessments, for example, we realize that Michael needs 15 minutes with a mentor to review proper lab write-up procedures, LaShawn needs help with Punnett Squares in the Genetics unit, and Umber is ready to write something more compelling in her studies on political rhetoric. Without the focus on formative assessment and adjusting learning in response to what it reveals, however, these students drift with needs unmet, academic potential dwindling. Are our minds tuned to differentiation possibilities?

In a successful differentiated class, we stop hiding behind the factory model of teaching. We teach in whatever way students best learn, even if that’s different student to student, or different from the way we best learn ourselves. Many of us are guilty of that from time to time - teaching the way we best learn, not the way our students best learn, myself included. We can do better. We can embrace the root of differentiation: responsive teaching. As students’ learning story is revealed, we adjust our instruction in order to maximize their learning. If a student needs more, less, or a different challenge, we provide it as we can.

Most schools conspire against this, unfortunately. As institutions, they are designed to meet the needs of students who “get it” first or easiest. This curriculum-by-age approach protects the status quo, and it provides a false sense of orderly effectiveness. Since teaching and learning can be messy processes, we seek easy schematics; they make us feel like we know what we’re doing and we are in control. As a consequence, we are our own worst enemies when we try to teach so students actually move content and skills into long-term memory. In order to live up to a school’s mission, we sometimes have to part way with its protocols.

Accepting differentiation more as a collection of principles about responsive teaching than a collection of quick recipes for someone’s diversity cookbook is my first piece of advice, as practical as those recipes may be. Mitigating the negative aspects of the factory model of schooling is my second. In addition to these, I suggest we:

• Build our personal capacity for creative thinking and problem-solving. Differentiation requires us to take risks, think divergently, and move out of comfort zones.

• Read and converse professionally. The best differentiation teachers I know read professional journals, books, and/or blogs regularly, and they take the time to discuss their ideas with colleagues in and out of their buildings. They share lesson plans for collegial review. Multiple perspectives help us teach smarter, not harder.

• Lower our professional standards. Yep, I said to lower them. So many of us are trying to do everything wise and wonderful every single day in the classroom while dealing with teacher-bashing media and an impoverished, ever-increasing class-size world. It’s too much; we have to conserve what little energy we have left at the end of the day for ourselves and families. Since we can’t do it all, we end up not doing any of it. Instead, try one differentiation idea per month for three years. Give yourself time and space to improve. This is healthy and reasonable. And every time you focus on one differentiation idea formally, it’ll affect many of the other elements in your teaching. You’ll actually continue your high standards and integrity, but you have license to be imperfect as you grow. This is the professional.

• Spend considerable time demonstrating to yourself and others how your assessments - pre-, formative, summative, common - inform your instructional decisions. We don’t put students into small groups, for example, because that is what differentiating teachers do. We put them into those groups because of something specific we knew about those students indicated the small group experience would improve their learning over what could be achieved in a whole class experience. To this end, get analytical daily: What impact did our instruction have on students and how do we know?

• Construct a solid understanding of the unique nature of the students you serve. There are universal characteristics about how brains of all ages learn, but there are very specific characteristics of the 12 year-old’s brain that we don’t find in the brains of 18 year-olds or the brains of 6 year-olds. Let’s articulate these differences and respond to them in our lessons.

Finally, I highly recommend teachers see teaching as something they do with students, not to students. It’s a collaboration to conduct the enterprise of schooling, and every successful classroom I’ve ever found embraced a modified democracy and mutual ethos of respect between student and teacher. Honor the student’s experience and aspirations, and the student will honor our suggestions and example. We can live with this; we can even thrive.

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

Thanks to Carol and Rick 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 Part Two of this differentiation series in a week and the next “question of the week” in ten days.

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.