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How can you provide effective differentiation teaching in your classrooms?


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How can you provide effective differentiation teaching in your classrooms?

How can you provide effective differentiation teaching in your classrooms?
Admin - Oct 28 2015

Yesterday, in our module 5 TESOL discussion topic: Classroom Management, Joe brought up an interesting topic: How can you provide effective differentiation teaching in your classrooms? Dr. Tien Chau asked the TESOL students, first of all, how do we define differentiation? Because we must first determine the specific needs of the students with fresh data and then determine which areas of differentiation we want to use. Joe narrowed his definition to group students according to their strengths and how to help them out to understand instructions effectively.

According to Dr. Tracey Hall, Senior Research Scientist, NCAC,

To differentiate instruction is to recognize students varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning, interests, and to react responsively. Differentiated instruction is a process to approach teaching and learning for students of differing abilities in the same class. The intent of differentiating instruction is to maximize each student’s growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is, and assisting in the learning process.
Identifying Components/Features
According to the authors, several key elements guide differentiation in the education environment. Tomlinson (2001) identifies three elements of the curriculum that can be differentiated: Content, Process, and Products. Additionally, several guidelines are noted to help educators form an understanding and develop ideas around differentiating instruction.
• Several elements and materials are used to support instructional content. These include acts, concepts, generalizations or principles, attitudes, and skills. The variation seen in a differentiated classroom is most frequently the manner in which students gain access to important learning. Access to the content is seen as key.
• Align tasks and objectives to learning goals. Designers of differentiated instruction determine as essential the alignment of tasks with instructional goals and objectives. Goals are most frequently assessed by many high-stakes tests at the state level and frequently administered standardized measures. Objectives are frequently written in incremental steps resulting in a continuum of skills-building tasks. An objectives-driven menu makes it easier to find the next instructional step for learners entering at varying levels.
• Instruction is concept-focused and principle-driven. The instructional concepts should be broad based and not focused on minute details or unlimited facts. Teachers must focus on the concepts, principles and skills that students should learn. The content of instruction should address the same concepts with all students but be adjusted by degree of complexity for the diversity of learners in the classroom.
• Flexible grouping is consistently used. Strategies for flexible grouping are essential. Learners are expected to interact and work together as they develop knowledge of new content. Teachers may conduct whole-class introductory discussions of content big ideas followed by small group or pair work. Student groups may be coached from within or by the teacher to complete assigned tasks. Grouping of students is not fixed. Based on the content, project, and on-going evaluations, grouping and regrouping must be a dynamic process as one of the foundations of differentiated instruction.
• Classroom management benefits students and teachers. Teachers must consider organization and instructional delivery strategies to effectively operate a classroom using differentiated instruction. Carol Tomlinson (2001) identifies 17 key strategies for teachers to successfully meet the challenge of designing and managing differentiated instruction in her text How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, Chapter 7.

• Initial and on-going assessment of student readiness and growth are essential. Meaningful pre-assessment naturally leads to functional and successful differentiation. Assessments may be formal or informal, including interviews, surveys, performance assessments, and more formal evaluation procedures. Incorporating pre and on-going assessment informs teachers to better provide a menu of approaches, choices, and scaffolds for the varying needs, interests and abilities that exist in classrooms of diverse students.
• Students are active and responsible explorers. Teacher’s respect that each task put before the learner will be interesting, engaging, and accessible to essential understanding and skills. Each child should feel challenged most of the time.
• Vary expectations and requirements for student responses. Items to which students respond may be differentiated for students to demonstrate or express their knowledge and understanding. A well-designed student product allows varied means of expression, alternative procedures, and provides varying degrees of difficulty, types of evaluation, and scoring.
Guidelines that make differentiation possible for teachers to attain:
• Clarify key concepts and generalizations to ensure that all learners gain powerful understandings that serve as the foundation for future learning. Teachers are encouraged to identify essential concepts and instructional foci to ensure all learners comprehend.
• Use assessment as a teaching tool to extend versus merely measure instruction. Assessment should occur before, during, and following the instructional episode, and help to pose questions regarding student needs and optimal learning.
• Emphasize critical and creative thinking as a goal in lesson design. The tasks, activities, and procedures for students should require that students understand and apply meaning. Instruction may require supports, additional motivation, varied tasks, materials, or equipment for different students in the classroom.
• Engaging all learners is essential. Teachers are encouraged to strive for development of lessons that are engaging and motivating for a diverse class of students. Vary tasks within instruction as well as across students. In other words, and entire session for students should not consist of all drill and practice, or any single structure or activity.
• Provide a balance between teacher-assigned and student-selected tasks. A balanced working structure is optimal in a differentiated classroom. Based on pre-assessment information, the balance will vary from class-to-class as well as lesson-to-lesson. Teachers should assure that students have choices in their learning.

Evidence of Effectiveness
Differentiation is recognized to be a compilation of many theories and practices. Based on this review of the literature of differentiated instruction, the “package” itself is lacking empirical validation. There is an acknowledged and decided gap in the literature in this area and future research is warranted.
According to the proponents of differentiation, the principles and guidelines are rooted in years of educational theory and research. For example, differentiated instruction adopts the concept of “readiness”. That is the difficulty of skills taught should be slightly in advance of the child’s current level of mastery. This is grounded in the work of Lev Vygotsky (1978), and the zone of proximal development (ZPD), the range at which learning takes place. The classroom research by Fisher at al.(1980), strongly supports the ZPD concept. The researchers found that in classrooms where individuals were performing at a level of about 80% accuracy, students learned more and felt better about themselves and the subject area under study (Fisher, 1980 in Tomlinson, 2000).
Other practices noted as central to differentiation have been validated in the effective teaching research conduced from the mid 1980’s to the present. These practices include effective management procedures, grouping students for instruction, and engaging learners (Ellis and Worthington, 1994).
While no empirical validation of differentiated instruction as a package was found for this review, there are a generous number of testimonials and classroom examples authors of several publications and Web sites provide while describing differentiated instruction. Tomlinson reports individual cases of settings in which the full model of differentiation was very promising. Teachers using differentiation have written about improvements in their classrooms. (See the links to learn more about differentiated instruction).
Applications to General Education Classroom Settings
The design and development of differentiated instruction as a model began in the general education classroom. The initial application came to practice for students considered gifted who perhaps were not sufficiently challenged by the content provided in the general classroom setting. As classrooms have become more diverse with the introduction of inclusion of students with disabilities, and the reality of diversity in public schools, differentiated instruction has been applied at all levels for students of all abilities.
Many authors of publications about differentiated instruction strongly recommend that teachers adapt the practices slowly, perhaps one content area at a time. Additionally, these experts agree that teachers should work together to develop ideas and menus of options for students together to share the creative load. As noted previously, studies on the package of differentiated instruction are lacking. However, proponents note that reports of the full model of differentiation are promising.

To read more about this discussion, please consider the followings:

Guild, P.B., and Garger, S (1998). What Is Differentiated Instruction? Marching to Different Drummers 2nd Ed. (ASCD, p.2)


Initially published in 1985, Marching to Different Drummers was one of the first sources to pull together information on what was a newly-flourishing topic in education. Part I defines style and looks at the history of style research; Part II describes applications of style in seven areas; Part III identifies common questions and discusses implementation and staff development.
Tomlinson, C.A., (2000). Differentiation of instruction in the elementary grades. ERIC Digest. ERIC_NO: ED443572.


To meet the needs of diverse student populations, many teachers differentiate instruction. This digest describes differentiated instruction, discusses the reasons for differentiated instruction, what makes it successful, and suggests how teachers may begin implementation.
Tomlinson, C.A., (1995). Differentiating instruction for advanced learners in the mixed-ability middle school classroom. ERIC Digest E536.


The ability to differentiate instruction for middle school aged learners is a challenge. Responding to the diverse students needs found in inclusive, mixed-ability classrooms is particularly difficult. This digest provides an overview of some key principles for differentiating instruction, with an emphasis on the learning needs of academically advanced students.
Tomlinson, C.A., & Allan, S. D., (2000). Leadership for differentiating schools and classrooms. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


This Web site contains two chapters from Tomlinson’s recent publication: Leadership for differentiating schools and classrooms, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. This book is designed for those in leadership positions to learn about differentiated instruction.
Web Article: Mapping a route toward differentiated instruction.


Carol Ann Tomlinson, an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership, Foundations and Policy at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA provides an article entitled; Mapping a route toward differentiated instruction. Educational Leadership, 57,1.

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