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Differentiation, One Size Doesn't Fit All
Kristen Smith Olson

Kristen Smith Olson, principal
Golden Lake Elementary, Centennial

“Differentiation is an ongoing journey. It illustrates that accommodating for academic diversity is an acknowledged and an important part of student achievement.”

What is differentiation? In the context of education, we should define it as a teacher’s reacting responsively to a learner rather than the more historical pattern of teaching the class as though all individuals in it were basically alike.

Differentiation is a combination of many educational theories and practices. John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and most recently Brooks and Brooks have written about a constructivist approach that is active, student-centered, and meaning-making. Within constructivist approach the emphasis is placed on the learner rather than the instructor. There are three key ingredients found in theories regarding constructivism: readiness, interest, and learning profile. These three elements are also key to differentiation.

Readiness is the idea that the brain must be ready for individuals to learn. Appropriate readiness levesl lead the way to motivation and excitement.  

Interest has long been known to be a major factor in learning. If interested in a topic, it is easy to give it attention. Independent learning often occurs when interest is present due to high motivation, satisfaction, and challenge.  

Learning profile is connected with how people learn. It includes learning style, which refers to environmental or personal factors that must be in place for the best learning. Some students may learn best when they can move, others may need to sit still. Some may need a room with lots to look at, while others may need a more sparse room because of distractions. Some students may learn best with a light room; others may choose a dark room. Some students may learn best orally, while others prefer visual presentation.

Intelligence preference relates to different sorts of brain-based biases we all have for learning. They include analytic, practical, creative, verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, spatial/visual, body/kinesthetic, musical/rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist, and existential. As you can see, there is a close relationship between learning style and intelligence preference. Gender and cultural influences also contribute to a person’s learning profile.

Differentiation of instruction can be a daunting task, but there are some easy starting points.  Based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile a teacher can easily differentiate four classroom elements. The first one is content, what the student needs to learn. Next is process, activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content. Third is products, projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what has been learned.  Finally, and most importantly, is learning environment, the way the classroom works and feels.  

The concept of differentiation is readily understood and it can occur with relatively low preparation or with high preparation that requires in-depth planning.

Low Prep Differentiation
Choices of books
Varied journal prompts
Work alone/together
Homework options
Flexible seating
Design a day
Open-ended activities
Explorations by interest
Multiple levels of questions

High Prep Differentiation
Tiered activities, assignments and labs
Independent studies
Alternative assessments
Compacting curriculum
Personal agendas
Group investigation
Interest groups
Flexible reading formats

Differentiation is an ongoing journey. It illustrates that accommodating for academic diversity is an acknowledged and an important part of student achievement. Benefits for children can include:
  • Instruction, assignments, tasks, and projects are challenging.  
  • Motivation is heightened when instruction, assignments, tasks, and projects match their readiness levels and interests.
  • Classrooms are flexible.
  • Students find genuine success by starting at their own beginning point and progressing.
  • Independence can be achieved at a higher rate as well as awareness of how learning happens.
  • There is respect among peers.
The goal of differentiation is maximum student growth and individual success.

(Published in the MESPA Advocate, May 2009)