Differentiating instruction as a practice demands we as teachers recognize that students come to our class with varied levels of ability. Recently I have been focused on developing strategies for how I differentiate the process of a learning activity. For those interested in the same, below I share a few key steps and give a case study of how they might look in practice. Keep in mind that this should happen in conjunction with differentiating product, content, and learning environment as well.
- Start with the end in mind
Planning quality curriculum for students involves having a clear standard you want them to meet. Differentiation cannot occur until the end product is defined. Staying focused on Common Core Standards helps ensure a level of rigor for all students.
- Define what grade level work looks like
Differentiation does not mean having lower expectations for students. The goal of differentiation is to get all students to grade level and enabling those who are ready to work past grade level. Determining what student work looks like for a desired learning target becomes the minimum goal to which all students should get.
- Teach up
My first attempts at differentiation were characterized by giving the higher capable students more work to “challenge” them and giving struggling students less work so they would have time to finish the task. More purposeful differentiation involves designing instruction that challenges all students. Institutes for Academic Diversity at the University of Virginia advises that teaching up involves planning the most complex learning activity first and then modifying it for students at different levels of readiness. Visit their site if you would like more information on differentiating instruction.
A Case Study of Differentiating Process in Practice:
To examine how this would happen in practice, let’s consider an example of how differentiation like this could exist in a classroom. Recently, I was working with my students on composing precise and knowledgeable main claims. This was one end goal planned for our writing effective opinion editorials as an assignment.
Next, I considered what grade level work looks like for writing a precise and knowledgeable main claim. Working with my PLC, I determined that this skill at 11th grade involves asserting a clear position on an issue and providing specific reasons in support. For example, consider this claim written by one of my students on the issue of capital punishment: “Since pursuing the death penalty costs more than lifelong incarceration and since homicide rates are higher in states that have the death penalty, it would probably be fiscally beneficial for Washington State to abolish the death penalty.” This example reflects the grade level ability to write a claim – it starts with two specific reasons and presents a clear position on the topic. Further, the content of the reasons and overall language makes the claim seem knowledgeable.
Teaching up from this skill then involved considering what the most complex learning activity would be and then modifying it for different ability levels. While I wanted all my students to write a claim with equal merit to the example claim above, some students were ready to think about their arguments in more nuanced ways. For me, the most complex learning activity related to writing claims is understanding the warrants, the tacit knowledge or values between author and reader that make a claim work. While these are often not directly stated in a claim, understanding them helps produce more effective reasons. A slightly less complex learning activity (but still above grade level) is considering the reservations inherent in an argument, the conditions that must exist for the claim to have merit. For example, with claiming capital punishment should be abolished since it costs more than incarceration, a reservation would be: “as long as the cost of lifelong incarceration remains cheaper than administering the death penalty.” Again, reservations are rarely explicitly stated, but being aware of them can generate stronger reasons as it anticipates concerns of the opposition.
In the actual lesson on writing main claims, I used a favorite differentiation strategy of mine called “Straight Forward, Uphill, and Mountainous.” The way it works is each level contains an instructional activity in a folder placed at different table groupings around the room. Uphill and mountainous levels contain activities scaffolding students toward considering the reservations and warrants of their claims respectively. The straight forward level scaffolds students towards writing a claim that meets grade level. After direct instruction defining claims and reasons, students selected at which level to work and dispersed to their appropriate tables.
How might this strategy work in your classroom this week? How would you scaffold each level — straight forward, uphill, mountainous?
When outside of the classroom, I enjoy mtn. biking, skiing, running, and grilling good food, but don’t enjoy karaoke or green beans, mainly because I can’t sing and was afraid of the Jolly Green Giant as a kid.
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