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by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Marcia B. Imbeau
Table of Contents
Few would argue that opportunity in life is strongly connected with educational opportunity. However, we have often misconstrued the notion of equal access to education to mean that all students should receive precisely the same pacing, resources, and instruction. The result is a one-size-fits-all education system. Differentiated instruction recognizes that students are not the same and that access to equal education necessarily means that, given a certain goal, each student should be provided resources, instruction, and support to help them meet that objective.
—John Stroup, University of Virginia doctoral student
"My district wanted all of its teachers to differentiate instruction," the young woman told me, "so they created a notebook of strategies for us. It's really nice. It's bound and everything. I guess it must have a dozen strategies in it."
"I'm glad you found it useful," I responded.
She paused as she searched for her next comment. "I did find it useful," she said. "I used every one of the ideas. And now I guess I'm just waiting for the next notebook."
She was puzzled. She had "done differentiation" cover to cover and had no idea where to go next. Because she had no basis for understanding how the ideas in the notebook had been generated, she was left feeling as if she had no basis for charting her own growth. She was experiencing what Ralph Waldo Emerson understood when he cautioned that if we only learn methods, we are tied to those methods, but if we learn principles, we can develop our own methods. My conversation with the young teacher reflected several common misunderstandings about differentiation:
The purpose of this chapter is to provide a brief summary of what we call differentiated instruction; a full explanation of the elements of this approach is available in other resources (e.g., Tomlinson, 1999, 2001, 2004; Tomlinson, Brimijoin, & Narvaez, 2008; Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006). A clear understanding of the individual elements of differentiation, and how they relate to and shape the classroom system, paves the way for a more robust exploration of the philosophy of differentiation (which directs how teachers manage and lead an effectively differentiated classroom). The following two chapters should eliminate misunderstandings about differentiation—such as those noted above—and help prepare teachers to be effective leaders for differentiation in their classrooms and schools.
Differentiation can be accurately described as classroom practice with a balanced emphasis on individual students and course content. In other words, in an effectively differentiated classroom, it is understood that
At the core of the classroom practice of differentiation is the modification of four curriculum-related elements—content, process, product, and affect—which are based on three categories of student need and variance—readiness, interest, and learning profile.
The knowledge, understanding, and skills we want students to learn.
During differentiation, we emphasize the methods that students use to access key content (e.g., independent reading, partner reading, text on tape, text with images, listening comprehension, online research, communication with experts, group demonstrations, small group instruction) rather than change the content itself (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006). There are instances, however, when some students need to go back to prerequisite content in order to move ahead, when advanced learners need to move ahead before their classmates are ready to do so, and when student Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) direct the teacher to change the content itself.
How students come to understand or make sense of the content.
Real learning—of the sort that enables students to retain, apply, and transfer content—has to happen in students, not to them (National Research Council, 2000; Wiggins & McTighe, 1998). The word process is often used as a synonym for activities. However, activities can be misaligned with content goals and fail to require students to think through, grapple with, or use essential knowledge, understanding, and skills. Therefore, it is wise to substitute the term sense-making activities to emphasize that what we ask students to do in the name of learning or practice should help them "own" the content, see how it makes sense, and realize how it is useful in the world outside the classroom.
How students demonstrate what they have come to know, understand, and are able to do after an extended period of learning.
A product is not something students generate in a single lesson or as a result of an activity or two. Rather, it is a rich culminating assessment that calls on students to apply and extend what they have learned over a period of time. Tests have these characteristics when they present students with complex problems to solve or issues to address in ways that require understanding of key ideas, transfer of knowledge, and application of skills. Effectively designed authentic assessments inevitably have these characteristics.
How students' emotions and feelings impact their learning.
Emotions and feelings originate in the brain based on past experiences and reactions to current experiences. They impact our motivation to learn, ability to work with others, and self-concept as a learner. In that way, affect is integral to, rather than apart from, curriculum. When a student has a positive affect regarding learning and himself or herself as a learner, it opens the door to academic growth. Conversely, a student's negative affect regarding learning or his or her own abilities as a learner shuts the door. Expert teachers don't just observe student behavior; they work to understand the affect that drives behavior so they can guide students in a positive direction.
A student's current proximity to specified knowledge, understanding, and skills.
It is important to keep in mind that readiness is not a synonym for ability, and the two terms should not be used interchangeably. The term ability connotes what we sometimes believe to be a more or less fixed and inborn trait. Readiness
suggests a temporary condition that should change regularly as a result of high-quality teaching. You'll see, as this chapter continues, that thinking in terms of "student readiness" rather than "student ability" is beneficial to both student and teacher. To grow academically, students must work consistently with tasks that are sharply focused on essential knowledge, understanding, or skills and that are a bit too difficult for their current level of readiness. In addition, students must have a support system in the form of peers and/or teachers who will help them surmount this difficulty and emerge from the task (or sequence of tasks) at a new and more advanced level of readiness (Sousa, 2001; Vygotsky, 1978, 1986; Wolfe, 2010).
That which engages the attention, curiosity, and involvement of a student.
Student interest is tied directly to student motivation to learn (Collins & Amabile, 1999; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). When student interest is engaged, motivation to learn is heightened, and learning is enhanced. Personal interests are typically linked to a student's strengths, cultural context, personal experiences, questions, or sense of need.
A preference for taking in, exploring, or expressing content.
A student's learning profile is shaped by four elements and the interactions among them:
A teacher in an effectively differentiated classroom seeks to develop increasing insight into students' readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles. In order to develop instruction that maximizes each student's opportunity for academic growth, the teacher then modifies content, process, product, and affect. Figure 1.1 provides specific examples of how this can play out in the classroom for content, process, and product. By contrast, attending to students' affective needs generally occurs when a teacher adapts the learning environment rather than the other three classroom elements.
Differentiated instruction is a principle-guided method to approach teaching and learning, and it is implemented in the context of a classroom system that contains four interdependent elements: learning environment, curriculum, assessment, and instruction. In all classrooms, there is a learning environment that is shaped by a teacher's beliefs, experiences, and actions. There is a curriculum, shaped by a teacher's content knowledge, text materials, and local or federal mandates. There is some form of assessment, again shaped by both the teacher and forces external to the teacher. Finally, all classrooms benefit from instruction that individual teachers design (or follow established designs for) and implement. The way in which the teacher envisions and enacts each of these elements shapes each of the other elements. For example, an assessment that feels judgmental to students will negatively impact the learning environment. Likewise, a classroom in which curriculum is highly prescribed, with few or no options for a teacher to make professional decisions on behalf of students, limits that teacher's options for instruction.
The model of differentiation supported in this book adopts the position that each of these four elements must be shaped and cultivated to provide opportunities for every student to maximize his or her learning capacity. Only when each of the elements—separately and in conjunction with one another—supports maximum learning for each student is the classroom functioning as it should.
The physical and emotional context in which learning occurs.
The appearance, organization, and structure of a classroom can invite learning with appealing colors, effective displays of student work, spaces for both solitary and collaborative work, easy access to materials and supplies, furniture arrangements that focus attention on peer input rather than largely or solely on the teacher, and visible cues to support quality work. Conversely, a classroom's physical environment can diminish learning by being barren, drab, cramped, teacher-focused, distracting, or limiting (with seating arrangements that isolate students from one another). More significant than this physical climate, however, is the classroom's more intangible emotional climate. Students learn best when they feel safe, respected, involved, challenged, and supported. Thus, a learning environment that invites each student to be a full participant in the classroom—with full support for the journey—is a necessity for robust differentiated instruction.
Effective differentiation—in other words, effective attention to the learning needs of each student—requires a learning environment in which
An organized plan to engage learners with important knowledge, understanding, and skills.
A list of standards is not a curriculum. A textbook is not a curriculum. These are ingredients—resources necessary for developing a curriculum. A high-quality curriculum begins with a teacher's sense of the authentic nature of the discipline that the curriculum will represent. It includes a clear delineation of the essential knowledge students should have and the skills they should possess as the result of a particular segment of learning (e.g., a year, a unit of study). It includes summative assessment mechanisms for determining student proficiency with designated outcomes that are tightly aligned with those assessments. It includes a carefully planned sequence of lessons or learning experiences that are designed to engage students with essential content and to ensure student success with the essential knowledge, understanding, and skills (Erickson, 2006; Tomlinson et al., 2009; Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).
The model of differentiation represented in this book advocates that all students (unless an IEP indicates otherwise) should
A data-gathering and analysis process that determines the degree to which students have achieved essential outcomes and informs decisions about and planning for instruction.
There are three kinds of assessment: (1) diagnostic assessment (preassessment), designed to determine a student's status relative to essential learning outcomes as a unit of study begins; (2) formative (ongoing) assessment, designed to follow a student's progress as he or she attains essential outcomes as a unit of study progresses; and (3) summative assessment, designed to measure student outcomes as a unit of study ends or at other key points in a unit or year of study.
High-quality assessments should guide students in understanding essential learning outcomes, their status relative to those outcomes, and ways in which they can work effectively to maximize their growth toward and beyond those outcomes (Earl, 2003). The model of differentiation on which this book is based emphasizes the use of
The process of teaching, educating, and engaging students with content.
Instruction is what many people think of when they think about teaching. It is the mechanism used to "deliver" the curriculum—or, more accurately, it connects content and learners. It positions the teacher as a metaphorical "bridge," helping students connect the knowledge and skills they already know (or are currently learning) to the essential outcomes they need in order to continue developing as learners and human beings. It helps develop an appropriate "game plan" to develop students' knowledge, self-awareness, and independence.
The model of differentiation on which this book is based advocates that instruction will
It's likely that many of us began our teaching careers without a clear vocabulary to think about the key classroom elements described in this chapter. It's also likely that we weren't aware how each action we take ripples into all corners of the classroom. Over time, and as we became thoughtful and mindful professionals, we gradually developed a general awareness that our mood and energy levels set in motion "weather fronts" that permeate through the day and affect our students. Our weariness settles on students like fog; our joy becomes their excitement. A test that we have made to seem ominous can bring with it a storm cloud that threatens an otherwise hospitable atmosphere. Our capacity to peacefully disarm a crisis with one student makes the overall learning environment seem more secure for all students in it.
As we continue to develop as professionals, we become more cognizant of how the classroom elements interact. For example, we recognize that if a student feels like an outsider in the classroom, he or she is unlikely to commit to class discussions, group work, or even individual tasks, and this unfavorable learning environment negatively impacts curriculum and instruction for that student. Likewise, if assigned work is beyond the abilities of certain students, they will feel unsafe in the classroom and regard the learning environment as negative.
With time and experience, we are able to anticipate such situations and be proactive with specific and precise strategies to avoid them. For example, if we provide diagrams and images to ensure that students understand a difficult process before they read the relevant material in their texts, even students who typically resist such independent reading will likely feel that they have a better understanding of what they read. Careful instruction, then, improves the likelihood of a positive experience with curriculum. Figure 1.2 represents the Möbius-like interdependence among curriculum, assessment, and instruction—surrounded by aspects of the learning environment.
The contents of this chapter represent what teachers in successfully differentiated classrooms must create, monitor, and sculpt in order to support the best possible learning outcome for each student. These are the raw materials of teaching. The contents of Chapter 2 will examine why teachers in effectively differentiated classrooms think about their classrooms in the ways that they do, and it will focus on the philosophical underpinnings of differentiation. Comfort with both the what and why is important in a teacher's ability to lead for differentiation.
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