What is Differentiation – Really?
There are a lot of books on the market to address this buzz word – differentiation. New teachers are told to be sure and differentiate while experienced teachers have sat through many a staff development which shared the theories – they may even be able to recite CarolAnn Tomlinson’s content, process, and product with great reverence. All that being said – what is it really?
I would like to propose that is a way of life. It can be studied; it can be analyzed but in order to be a truly “differentiated” teacher, you have to completely jump into the role. You don’t just differentiate this lesson or this product. You live a differentiated life. I bet you have experienced one of these teachers in your career. Think about that teacher and what they did. These are the teachers that although you are one of 150 that they see during the day, you feel they designed this lesson just for you. They are talking and questioning you, and everyone else is just along for the ride. That is a teacher who is differentiating. I did not realize I was doing this until I started studying the master theorists in differentiation – then I put the two together. This is what it is – the secret key. You have to live it, give your teaching self over to it. When it happens – what a freeing thing it is! Think about it, by providing opportunities for students to make choices and show their strengths, I do not have to constantly try and figure out what is best for every student. By providing an atmosphere of risk taking, every student can work to their potential – they are willing to risk stepping out of their comfort zone, and that is how growth takes place.
When teachers ask me about differentiation, I talk about the “critical” three: content. process and product, but more importantly I talk about what the students should experience through a differentiated activity or classroom:
1. Does it meet the needs of all of your students, no matter their level?
2. Does it allow higher level thinking?
3. Is it without intellectual ceilings?
4. Does it incorporate or allow for various learning preferences?
5. If risk is involved, is there built in success?
6. Does it serve an academic purpose? (e.g., not fluffy, full of substance)
7. Does it allow students to move forward, not regurgitate what they already know?
8. Have you changed your pronouns during instruction from I/me to you?
Think about these questions, try changing for a week or two, your students won’t know what hit them – in fact, they may be in shock for a few months like mine always were. By December, they finally understood this wasn’t a gotcha situation; the other shoe wasn’t going to drop. My instruction really was all about them… not me. It is my goal that more teachers convert themselves to the differentiated way of life in their classrooms.