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What is Differentiation : the Notion and Concept

What is Differentiation ?

Differentiation represents a framework or philosophy for effective teaching that includes providing various students with various means of learning (usually in the same classroom) in terms of getting the content, constructing, processing, or making sense of ideas, as well as for developing teaching materials and evaluation measures so all students in a classroom can learn effectively, no matter how different their abilities are.

Differentiation is usually used in “heterogeneous grouping” – strategy that collects together students of different abilities, learning needs, and levels of academic achievement. In such classes, teachers, for instance, vary instructional methods and use more interesting and flexible lessons. The basic idea is that the main educational purposes – making sure all students gain fundamental knowledge, concepts, and skills – remain the same for every student. However, in order to reach this, teachers may use various instructional strategies to help students meet those expectations. For example, when writing a critical essay, students may use various methodic teachers explained to them in the process in order to finish the essay.

Teachers who apply differentiated instructional strategies usually adjust the elements of a lesson from one class to another, so that students who need more time or a various teaching approach to understand a concept get specialized help they need. At the same time, other students who have already mastered the concept can be engaged in some other learning activity or move to a new assignment. In more diverse classes, teachers make lessons to address the unique needs of special students, high-achieving students, and, for example, English-language learners. Teachers might also use such strategies as formative assessment – periodic, in-process evaluations of what students are learning and not. In order to determine this, teachers ask students to write an essay or a cover letter for the subject they are learning. This is done with the purpose to find the best instructional methods needed for each student.

Differentiation also entails modifications to practice (how teachers do instruction to students), process (how the lesson is designed), products (the kinds of assignments students will have to complete), content (specific readings, research, or materials students will study), evaluations, and grouping (how students are grouped in the classroom). Differentiation techniques may also be based on certain students attributes, like interest (what subjects inspire students to learn), readiness (what students have learned and still need to learn), or learning method (the ways that help students to learn the material the best).

The following key principles form the basis of the differentiating instruction:

  • Consistent formative evaluation.
    Teachers consistently evaluate in order to identify students’ strengths and areas of need, so they can find students who need help in moving forward.
  • Recognition of diverse learners.
    All the students have different levels of expertise and experience with writing, reading, thinking, problem solving, and speaking. Consistent evaluations give teachers a possibility to develop differentiated lessons that meet all students’ needs.
  • Group work.
    Students work in pairs and small groups whose membership changes when needed. Learning in groups helps students engage in important discussions and to observe and learn from one another. For example, after writing an opinion essay, students can discuss their opinions on the subject with each other.
  • Problem solving.
    In the classes where the differentiated teaching is applied the focus is on the issues and concepts rather than a book or chapter. This encourages students to explore big ideas and expand the understanding of the main concepts.
  • Choice.
    Teachers offer choice to students in their reading and writing experiences and in the assignments and projects they complete. The negotiation with students helps teachers to create motivating tasks that meet students’ diverse needs and various interests.

This list of the main principles shows that differentiating instruction asks teachers to constantly strive to know and respond to each student’s needs to make the learning better.

The Difference between the Differentiation and Scaffolding

As a general instruction strategy, differentiation may be confused with scaffolding, as they both may have some similarities. These two methods use a variety of techniques that are intended to move students progressively toward better understanding and independence in the learning process. As differentiation and scaffolding apply the techniques that are used to achieve similar instructional goals, like moving a student’s learning and understanding from where it is to where it needs to be, the two methods may be confused to the point as being indistinguishable. However, the two approaches have differences in several ways.

These examples will help you to better understand what is differentiation. For example, when teachers use differentiate instruction, they might give students a completely different reading (to better match their reading level and abilities), or offer the class the option to choose from several texts (so every student can select the text that interests him the most), or give the class a few options to complete an assignment (for example, students might be allowed to write a traditional essay, or draw an illustrated essay, or create a presentation essay with text and images, or make an oral delivery of an essay)

When teachers, however, use the scaffolding instruction, they usually break up learning experience, concept, or skill into discrete parts, and then assist students to learn each part. For example, teachers may give students a fragment from a longer text to read, make them a part of a discussion of the fragment in order to enhance their understanding of its aim, and teach them the vocabulary they should know the text before giving them the full reading.

Discussions on the Differentiation

Differentiation is often the topic of a lot of discussions about equity and academic tracking in public schools. One of the main criticisms of the approach is the fact that the method is related to some difficulties and complexities that entail in teaching various students in one classroom or educational circle. In order to be effective differentiation requires highly specialized and sophisticated methods. Teachers usually need qualified training, monitoring, and professional development to make sure they are using differentiated instructional techniques effectively and correctly. Some teachers also argue that the practical realities of using differentiation, especially in bigger classes consisting of students with various ranges of skill levels, learning needs, and academic preparation, can be very difficult or even impracticable.

The opponents of this statement argue that this criticism comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the strategy itself. The educator and writer, Carol Ann Tomlinson (considered an authority on the differentiation), in her book “How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms”, points out that confusion’s potential source lies in the fact that the differentiated instruction is not the “individualized instruction” from the 1970s. In other words, she states that differentiation is the practice of mixing instructional techniques in a class to efficiently teach as many students as possible, but it doesn’t imply the creation of distinct courses of study for every student, like the individualized instruction. The combination of differentiated instruction and individualized instruction has most likely contributed to the consistent confusion and discussions about differentiation, especially as the terms are widely and often used as interchangeable.

Assisting Parents to Learn More about Differentiated Instruction

According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, a lot of parents want their children to learn, grow, succeed, and feel accepted in school. Teachers can help them develop a clear, positive understanding of what is differentiation and how their children can benefit from it.

  • The aim of the differentiated instruction is to make sure that everyone grows in all key skills and knowledge areas, encouraging students to move from the starting point and to become more independent learners.
  • Teachers closely monitor and evaluate skills, knowledge levels, interests in the differentiated classroom in order to determine effective ways for all students to learn. Teachers create their lesson plans taking into account all those various skills, levels, and interests of students.
  • Differentiated lessons reflect teachers’ best understanding of what will best help a student to grow in understanding and skill at the certain moment. That understanding develops as the course continues, as a student evolves, and as parents facilitate teachers’ understanding.
  • When parents talk to teachers, they share their views on a child with a teacher. This helps teachers to view students more broadly, especially in relation to students of the same age and in light of development models. The parent, on the other hand, has a deeper sense of a child’s interests and feelings. Both the wide-angle viewpoint of a teacher with the close up lens of the parents results in a bigger picture for everyone.

Learning Environment for the Differentiated Instruction

The environment is very important for the differentiated instruction as it creates the conditions for optimal learning. According to Tomlinson, environment either supports or deters students’ search for affirmation, power, contribution, purpose, and challenge in the class. The learning environment includes the design of the classroom, how a teacher uses the space, environmental elements and sensitivities like lighting, and an overall atmosphere of the class. Teacher’s goal is to create a positive environment that will be structured and supportive for every student. The design of the environment should be flexible with the range of varied types of furniture, and rooms for quiet individual work as well as rooms for group work and collaboration. This helps to engage in flexible and dynamic learning. Teachers should pay attention to the environment in the class and how it supports students’ ability to interact with others individually, in groups, and as a whole class. The classroom management techniques should be applied in order to support safe and supportive learning environment.

As the thesis conclusion, we can say that in a classroom where the differentiated instruction is applied, students should feel comfortable, safe, and welcome. In a differentiated class, there is a strong reasoned exposition for differentiating instruction based on evaluation results, students’ readiness, interests, and learning profiles.

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