Teaching is like a buffet, you have to choose different kinds of strategies to create a lesson. Differentiation is just another tool from the buffet of teaching strategies that can be used in a lesson. Differentiation is a way to reach all of the learners in your classroom.
Lately differentiation has become a dirty word for most teachers because administrators put so much pressure on teachers to implement small groups. This is only 1 way that instruction can be differentiated for students.
There are 3 ways that teachers can differentiate during a lesson.
1. Content- what students learn
2. Process – how students learn
3. Product- the end result of student learning
Teaching content in small groups is not always a good idea. For example, this year I have a group of students who are very far behind and their problem is not that they are incapable of learning, they have not been taught the concepts due to poor behavior and an academic year where there were several personnel changes. So, I have been differentiating the content according to their deficits an ability to understand the grade level content while trying to fill in those gaps. I have to do this in whole group because even the high achievers have deficits as well, so my goal of trying to get as much instruction in front of the students wouldn’t have worked well at all in small groups.
Like any other instructional strategy differentiation should have a purpose. Don’t get me wrong I know that many administrators, especially in elementary, say that they want to see small group instruction but small group doesn’t work when you have a group of students who are all at the bottom. You really can’t differentiate using small group because for the most part they all need the same thing. It is not until the cream begins to separate that small group can then become an option.
This is where I am with the group of students that I have. They have have 9 weeks of instruction with me and the classes and the students are beginning to separate from one another. I have 1 class that has only 4 ELLs and two 504 students, so that class learns at a faster pace. So, now I find myself ready to differentiate the product and process of how the students will learn because they have enough instruction, background information, and structure to work independently.
After the Thanksgiving break I will be implementing 2 differentiation strategies. I will use Mobymax for students who need remediation with 3rd and 4th grade number concepts and flexible and differentiated cooperative groups for independent practice. When I plan my lessons and I want to include cooperative groups I use flexible groups (heterogeneous) for general independent practice. If I have students that are struggling with a concept I will use differentiated groups (homogeneous) so that the students that have mastered the concept can work independently on an activity with all the bells and whistles. The students who still need support can work on an activity that is more skill based and has less rigor so that they have an opportunity to master the concept with my support.
Planning for differentiation should begin with the question, “Why do I need to differentiate?” then identify and label the students based on their ability. This can be done using Kagan’s Learning Teams. After your students are labeled you can create groups according to the need.