Though today's teachers generally work with single classes with students of nearly the same age, these children have an array of needs as great as those among the children of the one-room school. Thus, a teacher's question remains much the same as it was 100 years ago: “How do I divide time, resources, and myself so that I am an effective catalyst for maximizing talent in all my students?” Consider how these teachers answer that question.
- Mrs. Wiggins assigns students to spelling lists based on a pretest, not the assumption that all 3rd graders should work on List Three.
- Mr. Owen matches homework to student need whenever possible, trying to ensure that practice is meaningful for everyone.
- Ms. Jernigan only occasionally teaches math to the whole class at once. More often, she uses a series of direct instruction, practice, and application groups. She works hard to give everyone “equal time” at an appropriate entry point of instruction, matching practice work to student need. She also regroups students for real-world math applications so they hear a variety of voices in their journey to think mathematically.
- Ms. Enrico offers students a variety of options when it's time to create the final product for a unit. She bases the options on students' interests so they have the chance to link what they've learned with something that matters to them as individuals.
All of these teachers are differentiating instruction. Perhaps they practiced differentiating instruction before it had a name, or without even knowing its name. They are teachers who strive to do whatever it takes to ensure that struggling and advanced learners, students with varied cultural heritages, and children with different background experiences all grow as much as they possibly can each day, each week, and throughout the year.
Hallmarks of Differentiated Classrooms
In differentiated classrooms, teachers begin where students are, not the front of a curriculum guide. They accept and build upon the premise that learners differ in important ways. Thus, they also accept and act on the premise that teachers must be ready to engage students in instruction through different learning modalities, by appealing to differing interests, and by using varied rates of instruction along with varied degrees of complexity. In differentiated classrooms, teachers ensure that a student competes against himself as he grows and develops more than he competes against other students.
In differentiated classrooms, teachers provide specific ways for each individual 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. These teachers believe that students should be held to high standards. They work diligently to ensure that struggling, advanced, and in-between students think and work harder than they meant to; achieve more than they thought they could; and come to believe that learning involves effort, risk, and personal triumph. These teachers also work to ensure that each student consistently experiences the reality that success is likely to follow hard work.
Teachers in differentiated classes use time flexibly, call upon a range of instructional strategies, and become partners with their students to see that both what is learned and the learning environment are shaped to the learner. They do not force-fit learners into a standard mold. You might say these teachers are students of their students. They are diagnosticians, prescribing the best possible instruction for their students. These teachers also are artists who use the tools of their craft to address student's needs. They do not reach for standardized, mass-produced instruction assumed to be a good fit for all students because they recognize that students are individuals.
Teachers in differentiated classrooms begin with a clear and solid sense of what constitutes powerful curriculum and engaging instruction. Then they ask what it will take to modify that instruction so that each learner comes away with understandings and skills that offer guidance to the next phase of learning. Essentially, teachers in differentiated classrooms accept, embrace, and plan for the fact that learners bring many commonalities to school, but that learners also bring the essential differences that make them individuals. Teachers can allow for this reality in many ways to make classrooms a good fit for each individual.
Although differentiated classrooms embody common sense, they still can be difficult to achieve. In part, it is difficult to achieve a differentiated classroom because we see few examples of them. The examples that are out there, however, offer a productive way to start exploring differentiated instruction.
Portraits from Schools
Teachers work daily to find ways to reach out to individual learners at their varied points of readiness, interest, and learning preference. There is no one “right way” to create an effectively differentiated classroom; teachers craft responsive learning places in ways that are a good match for their teaching styles, as well as for learners' needs. Following are samples from classrooms in which teachers differentiate instruction. Some are lifted directly from an observation in a classroom. Some are composites of several classrooms, or extensions of conversations with teachers. All are intended to help in forming images of what it looks like and feels like in a differentiated classroom.
Snapshots from Two Primary Classrooms
For a part of each day in Mrs. Jasper's 1st grade class, students rotate among learning centers. Mrs.Jasper has worked hard for several years to provide a variety of learning centers related to several subject areas. All students go to all learning centers because Mrs. Jasper says they feel it's unfair if they don't all do the same thing. Students enjoy the movement and the independence the learning centers provide.
Many times, Isabel breezes through the center work. Just as frequently, Jamie is confused about how to do the work. Mrs. Jasper tries to help Jamie as often as she can, but she doesn't worry so much about Isabel because her skills are well beyond those expected of a 1st grader.
Today, all students in Mrs. Jasper's class will work in a learning center on compound words. From a list of 10 compound words, they will select and illustrate 5. Later, Mrs. Jasper will ask for volunteers to show their illustrations. She will do this until the students share illustrations for all 10 words.
Down the hall, Ms. Cunningham also uses learning centers in her 1st grade classroom. She, too, has invested considerable time in developing interesting centers on a variety of subjects. Ms. Cunningham's centers, however, draw upon some of the principles of differentiated classrooms. Sometimes all students work in a particular learning center if it introduces an idea or skill new to everyone. More often, Ms. Cunningham assigns students to a specific learning center, or to a particular task at a certain learning center, based on her continually developing sense of their individual readiness.
Today, her students also will work at a learning center on compound words. Students' names are listed at the center; one of four colors is beside each name. Each student works with the folder that matches the color beside his or her name. For example, Sam has the color red next to his name. Using the materials in the red folder, Sam must decide the correct order of pairs of words to make familiar compound words. He also will make a poster that illustrates each simple word and the new compound word they form. Using materials in the blue folder, Jenna will look around the classroom and in books to find examples of compound words. She will write them out and illustrate them in a booklet. Using materials in the purple folder, Tjuana will write a poem or a story that uses compound words she generates and that make the story or poem interesting. She then can illustrate the compound words to make the story or poem interesting to look at as well as to read. In the green folder, Dillon will find a story the teacher has written. It contains correct and incorrect compound words. Dillon will be a word detective, looking for “villains” and “good guys” among the compound words. He will create a chart to list the good guys (correct compound words) and the villains (incorrect compound words) in the story. He will illustrate the good guys and list the villains as they are in the story, and then write them correctly.
Tomorrow during circle time, all students may share what they did with their compound words. As students listen, they are encouraged to say the thing they like best about each presenter's work. Ms. Cunningham also will call on a few students who may be reticent to volunteer, asking them if they'd be willing to share what they did at the center.
Examples from Two Elementary Classrooms
In 5th grade, students at Sullins Elementary work with the concept of “famous people” to make connections between social studies and language arts. All students are expected to hone and apply research skills, to write effectively, and to share with an audience what they have learned as a result of the unit.
Mr. Elliott asks all his students to select and read a biography of a famous person from the literature or history they have studied. Students then use encyclopedias and the Internet to find out more about the person they have chosen. Each student writes a report about a famous person, describing the person's culture, childhood, education, challenges, and contributions to the world. Students are encouraged to use both original and “found” illustrations in their reports. Mr. Elliott gives a rubric to the whole class to coach students in areas such as use of research resources, organization, and quality of language.
In her 5th grade class, Mrs. May gives her students interest inventories to help them find areas where they may have a special talent or fascination, such as sports, art, medicine, the outdoors, writing, or helping others. Ultimately, each student selects an area of special interest or curiosity. The students and teacher talk about the fact that in all areas of human endeavor, famous people have shaped our understanding and practice of the field. She reads them a biographical sketch of a statesman, a musician, and an astronaut. Together, students and teacher describe principles about these famous people.
For example, famous people often are creative, they take risks to make advances in their fields, they frequently are rejected before they are admired, they sometimes fail, they sometimes succeed, and they are persistent. Students test the principles as they discuss historic figures, authors, and people in the news today. In the end, students conclude that people can be famous “for the right reasons” or “for the wrong reasons.” They decide to research people who become famous by having a positive impact on the world.
The school media specialist helps each student to generate lists of “positive” famous people in that student's particular categories of interest. She also helps them learn how to locate a variety of resources that can help them research famous individuals. This includes brainstorming possible interview sources. She talks with them about the importance of selecting research materials they can read and understand clearly. She also offers to help them look for alternatives if they find materials that seem too easy or too hard for them.
Mrs. May and her students talk about how to take notes and try various ways to take notes during their research. They also consider different methods of organizing their information, such as webs, outlines, story boards, and matrices. They talk about all the ways they can express their understandings: through essays, historical fiction, monologues, poems, caricatures, or character sketches. Mrs. May provides students with a rubric that guides them on the content, research, planning, and outcome of their work. Students also work with Mrs. May individually to set their own goals for understandings, working processes, and final products.
As the assignment continues, Mrs. May works with individuals and small groups to assess their understanding and progress and to coach them for quality. Students also assess each other's work according to the rubrics and individual goals. They ensure that each report shows someone who has made a “positive” contribution to the world. In the end, the whole class completes a mural in the cafeteria that lists the principles of fame in the shape of puzzle pieces. On each puzzle piece, students write or illustrate examples of the principle from their famous person's life. They then add ways in which they believe the principles are or will be important in their own lives. Students also share their final products with an adult who knows something about, or is interested in learning about, the person they researched.
Comparisons from the Middle Grades
In Mr. Cornell's science class, students work in a specific cycle: read the text chapter, answer questions at the end of the chapter, discuss what they have read, complete a lab, and take a quiz. Students do the labs and complete their reports in groups of four. Sometimes Mr. Cornell assigns students to a lab group as a way of managing behavior problems. Often, students select their own lab groups. They read the text and answer the questions individually. Mr. Cornell typically conducts two or three whole-class discussions during a chapter. All students enter the science fair in the spring, with a project based on a topic studied in the fall or winter.
Mrs. Santos often assigns students in her science class to reading squads when they work with text materials. At this stage, group assignments usually are made so students of similar reading levels work together. She varies graphic organizers and learning log prompts according to the amount of structure and concreteness the various groups need to grasp essential understandings from the chapter. She also makes it possible for students to read aloud in their groups or to read silently. Then they complete organizers and prompts together. As students read, Mrs. Santos moves among groups. Sometimes she reads key passages to them, sometimes she asks them to read to her, but she always probes for deeper understanding and helps to clarify their thinking.
Sometimes Mrs. Santos asks students to complete labs, watch videos, or work with supplementary materials before they read the chapter so they have a clear sense of guiding principles before they work with the text. Sometimes they read the text for awhile, do a lab, and go back to the text. Sometimes labs and supplementary materials follow text exploration. Frequently, she will have two versions of a lab going simultaneously: one for students who need concrete experiences to understand essential principles and one for students who already grasp the important principles and can deal with them in complex and uncertain contexts.
Mrs. Santos gives quizzes and diagnostic learning log entries several times in the course of a unit. Thus, she is aware of which students need additional instruction with key understandings and skills and which students need more advanced applications early in the unit. Students have several choices for a major science project:
- Work alone or with peers to investigate and address a problem in the community that relates to the science they are studying.
- Work in a mentorship role with a person or group in the community using science to address a local problem.
- Study scientists past and present who have positively influenced the practice of science in an area they have studied.
- Write a science fiction story based on the science they have studied with the goal of submitting the story to the school's literary arts anthology.
- Use classroom cameras to create a narrated photo essay that would help a younger student understand how some facet of the science they have studied works in the world.
- Propose another option to the teacher and work with her to shape a project that demonstrates understanding and skill in science.
In Mr. O'Reillys 8th grade English class, students read the same novels and have whole-class discussions on them. Students complete journal entries on their readings.
In Mrs. Wilkerson's 8th grade English class, students often read novels around a common theme, such as courage or conflict resolution. Students select from a group of four or five novels on the same concept, and Mrs. Wilkerson provides classroom sets of the books. Mrs. Wilkerson also makes sure the novels span a considerable reading range and tap into several interests.
Mrs. Wilkerson's 8th graders meet frequently in literature circles with students reading the same novel. There they discuss what they are reading. Although the various literature circles reflect different degrees of reading proficiency, students in each group take turns serving in one of five leadership roles: discussion director, graphic illustrator, historical investigator, literary luminary, and vocabulary enricher. There are printed guides for each role to help students fulfill them well. Mrs. Wilkerson also varies journal prompts, sometimes assigning different prompts to different students. Often, she encourages students to select a prompt that interests them. There also are many opportunities for whole-class discussion on the theme that all the novels share, allowing all students to contribute to an understanding of how the theme “plays out” in the book they are reading and in life.
Samples from High School
In Spanish I, Mrs. Horton's students complete the same language pattern drills, work on the same oral exercises, read the same passages, and take the same quizzes.
In French I, Mr. Adams's students often work with written drills at differing levels of complexity and with different amounts of teacher support. Their oral exercises focus on the same basic structures, but completion requires different levels of sophistication with the language. Sometimes students can “opt out” of review sessions to create their own French dialogue or to read a French language magazine. Students often work in teacher-assigned, mixed-readiness pairs to prepare for what the teacher calls “fundamentals quizzes.” Students who wish to do so can, from time to time, select a partner to prepare for a “challenge quiz.” Success on a challenge quiz nets students “homework passes” they can use to be excused from homework assignments when their work on the quiz indicates they have mastered the homework material.
In Mr. Matheson's Algebra II class, students typically complete the same homework, work independently on in-class drills, and take the same tests.
In her Algebra II class, Mrs. Wang helps students identify key concepts and skills in a given chapter. After various chapter assessments, students are encouraged to look at their own assessment results and select homework assignments and in-class miniworkshops that will help them clarify areas of confusion. She encourages students to decide whether they work most effectively alone or with a partner and to make that choice when there are opportunities to do so. Toward the end of a chapter, Mrs. Wang also gives students individual “challenge problems,” which they can tackle alone or with a classmate. She designs the problems to be a mental reach. On end-of-chapter tests, students find challenge problems similar but not identical to the ones Mrs. Wang gave them earlier. There may be five or six different challenge problems distributed among the tests of 30 students.
In physical education, Mrs. Bowen's students usually all work with the same exercises and basketball drills. Mr. Wharton helps his students diagnose their starting points with various exercises and basketball skills, set challenging goals for personal improvement, and chart their personal progress. He particularly stresses growth in two areas: a student's best and weakest area.
In U.S. History, Miss Roberson and her students cover the information in the text sequentially. She lectures to supplement information in the text. Miss Roberson includes a special emphasis on women's history and African American history during the months designated by the school for those emphases.
Mrs. Washington's U.S. History students look for key concepts and generalizations that recur in each period of history they study. They also look for concepts and generalizations unique to each period. They study various points of view and the experiences shared by various cultural, economic, and gender groups. They use a variety of text, video, and taped materials of varying degrees of difficulty. Mrs. Washington sometimes lectures, but she always uses overhead transparencies that provide key points of her lecture to help visual learners. She also stops throughout the lecture to encourage students to talk about key ideas in the lecture and to ensure their grasp of those ideas. Essays and projects often ask students to take their understanding of a period in U.S. history and contrast it with what was going on in another culture and in another geographical area during the same period. Project assignments always offer several options for how a student can express his or her understanding. At the end of each quarter, students have the option of taking their whole grade from an exam, or they can take half of it from an alternative assessment proposed by the teacher and modified by the student with teacher guidance and approval.
Differentiated classrooms feel right to students who learn in different ways and at different rates and who bring to school different talents and interests. More significantly, such classrooms work better for a full range of students than do one-size-fits-all settings. Teachers in differentiated classrooms are more in touch with their students and approach teaching more as an art than as a mechanical exercise.
Developing classrooms that actively attend to both student similarities and student differences is anything but simple. The chapters that follow describe classrooms with differentiated, or responsive, instruction, and they offer guidance on how you can, over time, make such classrooms a reality for your class or school.