Schoolwide Differentiation

By Anthony Rebora — September 10, 2008 3 min read
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Carol Ann Tomlinson’s writing has long helped teachers apply the principles of differentiated instruction in their classrooms. But in her latest book, The Differentiated School: Making Revolutionary Changes in Teaching and Learning (ASCD), she broadens her scope. With the help of co-authors Kay Brimijoin and Lane Narvaez, she explores how whole schools can transition to differentiated instruction—an imperative, she believes, for broad educational improvement.

In particular, Tomlinson and her co-authors examine the paths of two very different schools—one a moderately high-achieving elementary school in St. Louis, the other a Vermont high school with a recent history of academic struggle—that have made the shift to schoolwide differentiation and seen impressive gains as a result. Along the way, to provide intellectual context, the authors highlight relevant findings from the best-practices research on school change.

So, how did these schools do it? How did they transform themselves from (for the most part) traditional, routine-mired institutions to places where classrooms reportedly brim with creative learning activities and a shared sense of purpose?

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A big part of it, Tomlinson says, was that they were blessed with exceptional leaders—leaders who didn’t just lay down mandates or try out a few new things but who were “propelled by values, vision, and passion.” Principals Lane Narvaez (at Conway Elementary) and Joyce Stone (at Colchester High) came into their jobs with a deep-seated commitment to educational equity and excellence, and they developed coherent, meaningful strategies to employ differentiation toward that end. They also understood that school-change initiatives can often look very different from the classroom. From the start, they made teachers active participants in their plans, providing opportunities for feedback and questioning. And they ensured that educators had the resources and support they needed to meet new expectations.

Indeed, both Narvaez and Stone launched an array of staff-development opportunities to help teachers conceptualize and apply the various components of differentiated instruction in their classrooms. That was a second key to their success. Training activities ranged from whole-school conferences, coaching sessions, and grade-level planning teams (at Conway) to summer institutes, learning circles, and teacher mentoring (at Colchester). At both schools, the various staff-development offerings—aided by on-site facilitators and teacher leaders—evolved into a kind of interlocking and sustained support network built around practical instructional knowledge, feedback and monitoring, and collaborative inquiry. These activities became integral parts of the schools’ culture.

Finally, the leadership teams at both schools closely monitored their schools’ progress as the shift to differentiated instruction took hold. As Tomlinson makes clear, this didn’t just mean reviewing standardized test scores, though that was an important component. It meant using a range of evaluation instruments and data sources, including formative assessments, student and parent surveys, teacher feedback forms and observations, student well-being indicators, and outside analyses. By closely monitoring results, the schools’ leaders were not only able to make adjustments and direct additional support where needed (just as any good differentiated instructor would do in the classroom), they could also share examples of improvement and shifts in perspective, in effect reshaping their school’s story.

For Tomlinson and her co-authors, this kind of internal public relations is key. “As a culture’s narrative becomes commonly shared,” they write, “people act accordingly.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as schoolwide differentiation


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