Best differentiation strategies in the classroom teachers can begin implementing now

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As educators, we know that learners have different academic abilities, aptitudes and experiences. They also have their own interests and dreams. Using differentiation strategies in the classroom helps you meet learners where they are. 

Why is it important to use differentiated instruction in the classroom?

When teachers successfully employ differentiation strategies in the classroom, academic achievement becomes accessible to more learners. Beyond academics, differentiating instruction promotes a love for learning. This can make a huge difference for learners who may feel unseen in a one-size-fits-all academic atmosphere. The following list includes categories of learners who may find differentiated learning especially beneficial.

Students who can benefit from differentiation:

  • English language learners
  • Students who are ahead in certain subjects 
  • Students with different learning capacities or abilities
  • Students with specific learning interests 
  • Students who respond best to specific learning methods such as visual, kinesthetic or logical

Increased motivation and achievement

Differentiation allows educators to tailor lessons to specific academic levels. That way the lessons are sufficiently challenging for the learners at these different levels. Being able to stretch oneself and then succeed at new subject matter enhances interest and intrinsic motivation. When educators differentiate lessons, more learners have the opportunity to work at this optimal level of difficulty. 

This helps create a positive classroom environment. Engaged and motivated students are more likely to stay focused and enjoy learning. This generally translates to them achieving more academically and being more receptive to learning in the classroom.  

What are the best ways to begin differentiation?

To begin to differentiate learning in the classroom, knowing your students should be the first step. According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, renowned leader in the area of differentiated learning since the 1990s, differentiation is in direct response to learners’ needs. The adjustments educators make to the content they teach as well as the process, product or learning environment are based on student readiness, interests and learning profile. 

Tomlinson emphasizes that factoring in individual learning styles and readiness levels happens before lesson plan design, not after. Therefore, to begin the process of differentiation, an educator must know enough about the learners they’re teaching. 

Access to relevant and valuable content is another fundamental as educators get started with differentiation. Differentiation will not make trivial and fluffy curriculum less trivial and fluffy. It’s important to start with meaningful classroom content.

What are differentiation strategies?

Differentiation strategies are plans of action designed to support educators in prioritizing what is most important for their learners. In some schools, these strategies provide a mapping for the process of syncing a required curriculum with the learning styles, expression styles, interests and abilities of students. 

Strategies should take into account what arises in an educator’s day-to-day interactions with learners. It involves an agility to respond to learners in whatever way they show up on a given day. 

Getting started with differentiation strategies in the classroom

The first time I wrote about differentiation was in 2016. I had just started using it with language learners at the middle school level. At this particular school, learners varied greatly in the areas of language comprehension, ability to communicate and comfort level with speaking. 

Get peer support for the process

What stands out looking back on my personal experience was the support I had from my teaching colleagues. The department coordinator organized a special training for me that included my direct supervisor who had been using differentiation successfully with her learners. The personal support and follow-up made this unfamiliar process much less risky in my mind. Receiving this scaffolding as an educator really built up my confidence. Since the process involved triple the amount of prior preparation, it would’ve been much harder to tackle alone. 

Edtech leader Rich Dixon recommends finding a community of practice where you can get support for your challenges, share what you’ve learned and receive feedback to help you make improvements. One such resource is the Hāpara Community, a group of educators who share ideas and help support one another.

View differentiation as a journey

Differentiation is more like a journey, versus a destination according to Dixon. He recommends embarking on this nonlinear process by implementing learning strategies and seeing how the students respond. Allow for some degree of trial and error. 

It is also important to gather formative feedback from your learners and identify the practices that were the most helpful. Once identified and tested, take your time to reflect on the results. Determine what can be implemented or changed in order to move ahead successfully. 

Employ a systems approach through technology 

Along with setting up a supportive system of mentors and peers, technology tools can be a great asset in a differentiated learning environment. Tech can help streamline the painstaking  preparation process of creating multiple lessons and information gathering.

One tool educators recommend for differentiating instruction is Hāpara Workspace. It gives educators the ability to easily create lessons that allow learners and groups of learners to move through assignments at their own pace. Learners with similar levels who work better in a team environment can work on assignments and projects together. If a learner needs to go back to review material they hadn’t fully assimilated, it’s easy to access. 

How can an educator best implement differentiated instruction?

Consider a tiered approach 

Tiered instruction is not a synonym for differentiated instruction. However, it is an important tool within a larger differentiation strategy. 

To tier instruction, educators make slight adjustments to a lesson in order to meet the needs of each learner and appropriately challenge them. The same fundamental skills and concepts are covered. Learning modes and activities may be adjusted with the intention that students remain interested and engaged.

Aspects to vary in a tiered approach 

  • Challenge level
  • Complexity
  • Resources
  • Outcomes
  • Process
  • Product

The above variables can be further dissected or combined. For example, when varying by resources, educators can choose a text at different reading levels or completely different media, like video, based on learners’ interests.

When an educator varies the process, learners are expected to achieve the same end products, but how each learner arrives at the outcome differs. Depending on bigger picture objectives, that same educator could tier both process and product, giving students much more individualized learning experiences.

Teaming learners

Teaming or grouping learners should be intentional. First, consider the reason for structuring  teams in a certain way. It’s valid to differentiate for academic ability or collaboration skills or even differentiate by learners’ passions.

Using mini-lessons or center work

Another great way to incorporate differentiated instruction is through micro lessons at learning stations. Educators recommend these strategies for effective time management and as a way to personalize learning. Students often enjoy moving through learning stations where they find novel activities adaptable to their needs and abilities. While these activities are associated with younger children, I’ve also employed them successfully with high school classes.  

Key takeaways

✔️ Employing differentiation strategies in the classroom makes academic achievement more accessible to a diverse group of learners

✔️ Differentiating instruction can help students develop a passion for learning and especially benefit students who may feel uncomfortable with a homogenous teaching strategy.

✔️ Training, peer support and technology can support educators throughout the process of incorporating differentiation strategies into their teaching

✔️ Seeing this process as a journey can help educators build confidence. Observe how students respond to different learning strategies. Identify and repeat the practices that were most successful.  

✔️ Be sure to gather data and formative feedback. Then take your time to reflect on the results to discern which areas warrant improvement.

✔️ Tiered instruction, groups and learning centers are all great ways to get started.

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