Intentional Differentiation – Common Language

Differentiation | Planning | Readiness | Interests | Learning Preferences | Strategies Alignment

Effective instruction starts when considering these four questions:

  1. What do we want our students to know, understand, and do based on curriculum outcomes?
  2. How will students demonstrate their understanding?
  3. What will we do for the students who fail the tasks?
  4. What will we do for the students who exceed expectations from the curriculum outcomes?

As a result of the first two questions, we use Differentiation to answer the last two questions. It’s important to begin this journey with the understanding that ALL competent teachers use Differentiation. They may not recognize their actions as such, but if they address student questions, offer choices for doing work, and/or provide individual or small group coaching as needed–they ARE differentiating.

Common Language for Differentiation 

Being on the same page about the concepts of Differentiation ensures better and efficient planning and practice. At the balcony view, teachers plan and implement well when they use these two approaches: Intuitive and Intentional Differentiation:

Intuitive – In the moment Differentiation
This approach to differentiation is perhaps what occurs most frequently. Once a lesson starts, challenges occur. They may range from students struggling with directions or lacking the prerequisite skills for the immediate task to learners who already know the content and find the assignment to be boring and repetitive. How a teacher adapts or adjust the lesson “while” it’s in progress is Intuitive Differentiation.

Teachers may answer questions, change the work to be more or less complex, or provide individual coaching. While Intuitive Differentiation happens in the moments of instruction, the supports provided can improve if the choices are deliberate based on knowledge of students’ needs. Intentional Differentiation can further improve these Intuitive decision making.

Intentional – preplanned Differentiation
This approach can have a pronounced positive impact on learning experiences when educators review student data to determine the best approaches to supporting the students. Often, teachers can look at an upcoming lesson and the learning outcomes, and project which students will likely struggle and which will feel unchallenged. If they know this ahead of time, we should begin preplanning supports the meet these learners’ needs.

Application of concrete and observable Differentiation is based on seven elements, first introduced by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Susan Allen, and are explored in many references such as So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation.

Differentiation Design Guide

Use this guide for both an explanation of the three planning steps for implementing strong intentional Differentiation and an understanding of how learners’ needs are met through explicit instructional structures and strategies.

These elements help shape lesson planning for the learning experiences (Content, Process, & Products and the environment). Use the Learner Voice & Assess elements–Readiness Interests Learning Preferences–to view planning from the Learner’s point of view. Data from these areas are how students determine if the work is respectful and meaningful to them.

Levels of Differentiation Practice
Use this leveling guide to reflect on current instructional practices with using Differentiation. It helps conversations to recognize what is already being done, and identify areas for growth to further improve Differentiation practices.

Formative Assessments

Assessment for learning is key to effective Differentiation. We need to know much about our students to improve learning experiences and meet their needs.

  •  Formative Assessment Cycle
    This is a helpful thinking structure for how to review and reflect on student data to inform the later lessons.
  • 3 Guidelines to Eliminating Assessment Fog
    Clean assessment is needed to ensure that what is being assessed is what is expected. Assessment tools can include conflicting elements such as logistics that impair clear data collection. For example, taking off points for improper heading–name, date, and title–may not be the focus of demonstrating solving math problems. It’s important to separate the logistical requirements from the demonstration of academic outcomes
  • 3-Part Data Collection
    Supporting learners means getting to know the whole person. Three areas to collect data about each learners are: Academic skills, Personal Interests & Learning Preferences, and Community/Home Life.

    • Academic Skills
      Understand what students know and don’t know regarding skills and content knowledge. This is an area that teachers do much in formal ways for collecting data.
    • Personal Interests & Learning Preferences
      Learn what students care about. How do they prefer to spend their time when they are in control? These interests can be included into lessons as context for connecting academic skills. Understanding the different ways that learners prefer to learn, gives insights of the different ways instruction should be presented and provided.
    • Community/Home Life
      Understanding what students’ life is like outside of school, at home, in their neighborhood–their greater community are what shapes a person’s perspective and perceptions about what is valued. Responsibilities, expectations, and survival are influences on people. They shape the person’s decisions and actions when at work and school. The more we know, the better we can use empathy to support each learner on their journey to success.

Differentiation Video Playlist
View examples of Differentiation in practice. The playlist is regularly updated. If you have a request send to this form or through: @jmccarthyeds via Twitter.