Making Differentiation Productive: A Planning Guide

Differentiation can be challenging and fruitful if done with planful intention. Below is a guide for bring forth more success in your work to meet the needs of ALL learners by ensuring that learning experiences have these elements or components. Post or tweet your questions or ideas to @JMcCarthyEdS

Core Steps for Planning Differentiation
  1. List the standard(s) or curriculum objective(s)
  2. For each, unpack the key concept(s) and/or skill(s) to be learned.

    What do learners need to know, understand, and/or do?
  3. How can learners practice and demonstrate growth towards the key concepts and skills?

    List artifacts and actions that develop and grow achievement of the key concepts and skills.


Where Differentiation Happens

Content: Based on the key concepts and skills, how can content be delivered, acted on, and used to show understanding.

Process: Based on the key concepts and skills, what activities and approaches can learners participate to reflect and make sense for personal growth.

Product: Based on the key concepts and skills, what are artifacts and actions (such as presentations) that learners could create and/or plan to demonstrate achievement towards mastery.


How Differentiation Happens

Readiness: For each key concept and/or skill:
  1. Identify the components that make up a concept and execution of a skill.

  2. Analyze 2-3 ways to teach and coach the components at different levels of complexity. Such as:
    1. Learners lacking major gaps in understanding
    2. Learners lacking minor gaps in understanding, yet can keep pace with the progression.
    3. Learners whose understanding exceeds the required level of understanding.
  3. Evaluate the accuracy of step 2, ie does each approach actually support development of the concept and/or skill.

  4. Create an activity or task within one of the following structures:
    1. Tiered: All students working on the same concept or skill. Learners are grouped by common gaps in understanding and those who exceed the mastery level. Similar work at a complexity level that accommodates each group of learners.
    2. Individualized – independent tasks: Each learner works on different tasks that align with their specific needs, such as gaps in understanding, or missing fundamental skills. The work is different for most students as also is the complexity level. The learning objective may be different for the learners, but the targets are building blocks to common overarching objective(s).
    3. Individualized – common tasks: All learners work within the same tasks. However, the tasks are made up of sub-tasks that range in targeting specific components of concepts and/or skills. Learners either choose or are assigned to specific tasks within the options. Some learners will share both the same and different tasks. Example: Think Tac Toe and Readiness Centers or Stations.


Interests: Get to know students and what they like to spend time doing.
  1. Prepare 3-4 options for learning and/or practicing the skills and/or concepts.
  2. Communicate the criteria for assessment of skills and/or concepts. Challenge learners to create the product or artifact that demonstrates the assessment.
  3. Design activities and stations that have multiple options to choose from.
  4. Enable students to complete tasks based on their personal interests.
  5. Co-design with the students the activities.
  6. Create inquiry-based learning activities and experiences.
  7. Create authentic learning experiences.


Learning Preferences: 
  1. Collect data about the various ways that learners prefer to process understanding and demonstrate skills.
  2. Provide learning experiences that incorporate a variety of learning experiences.
  3. Allow students to design artifacts or complete work based on their voice.

Leave a Reply