November 20, 2015

What Is Differentiation, Anyway?

Differentiation. Personalization. Individualization. Are they all the same? This article provides some answers.

differentiationDifferentiation. Personalization. Individualization. For those not up to speed with these teaching philosophies, they all appear to mean the same thing at a quick glance.

But, of course, they don’t.

Everyone’s talking about personalization these days, especially since the introduction of the Common Core. Personalized learning places the student at the center of learning, allowing them to take charge of their own learning, and providing them with choice and voice in what, how, when and where they want to learn.

Individualization, on the other hand, is a teacher-centered philosophy in which learners depend on the teacher to guide instruction. Teachers evaluate needs of the individual learner, and customize instruction accordingly.

Which brings us to differentiation. Another philosophy in which teachers drive learning, differentiation has been proven to benefit students in mixed-ability classrooms, as well as fuel achievement across the curriculum.

In one study, for example, differentiation was shown to help increase reading gains by more than two and a half times.

Let’s take a closer look at what differentiation is, how it’s used in the classroom, and how students benefit.

What It Is

Education gurus Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey define differentiated learning as “instruction based on the learning needs of different groups of learners.”

In their Personalization vs. Differentiation vs. Individualization Chart, they go on to state that teachers set the same objectives for all groups or students, use data and assessment to customize instruction for these groups, and provide individual feedback to help advance learning.

Further, differentiation expert Carol Ann Tomlinson states that “ … teachers who differentiate provide specific alternatives for individuals to learn as deeply as possible and as quickly as possible, without assuming one student’s road map for learning is identical to anyone else’s.”

Differentiation in the Classroom

There are three ways in which teachers typically differentiate instruction:

  1. Adjusting content – what students learn
  2. Revising the process – how students learn
  3. Varying the product ­– how students demonstrate mastery of concepts

In her book, Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, Tomlinson provides examples of how teachers effectively divide their time and resources to differentiate learning for their students. She noted techniques such as:

  • Formative assessment – both formal and informal – to help better identify student needs and adapt instruction accordingly
  • Pre-assessment to determine where students are and which assignments best fit with their current levels of understanding
  • Giving students choice when it comes to turning in an assignment or completing an assessment so that the learning is more meaningful
  • For English language learners, allowing them to draft writing pieces in their native language, or providing supportive resources in that language so they can better relate to concepts

Kristine Dudlo, supervisor of curriculum and instruction for Bloomingdale School District in Bloomingdale, NJ, believes that with dedication, training and the right tools, teachers can differentiate learning in their classroom.

“Teachers can get overwhelmed with regard to how to use materials effectively for differentiated instruction,” she said. “A lot more professional development needs to be happening in all areas to help them.”

How Technology Can Help

Students at Bloomingdale use Achieve3000’s online platform for differentiated instruction to help their struggling readers achieve. At the beginning of the program, students took the LevelSet assessment to provide a benchmark for their Lexile scores.

Students read articles customized to their Lexile levels each week, and the program automatically moves them to higher levels of reading based on their performance of online activities related to those articles.

Because tracking of student progress and customization is done automatically, Kristine says it’s helped save teachers a lot of time when differentiating.

She added that, although it’s challenging for teachers to find the time to tailor instruction, it is possible, with the right mindset – and a little help.

“You have to be really dedicated to differentiate, but there are resources like Achieve that can help you achieve those goals.”

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