Sunday, July 20, 2014

Differentiation Defined

I had an incredible opportunity this summer to hear Carol Ann Tomlinson speak about differentiation. I can remember when the buzzword, “differentiation” started being thrown around about 20 years ago. An image developed around what a differentiated classroom looked like, which generally included students doing different things rather than all one assignment.

Carol Tomlinson explains in her book, Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom :

Differentiation of instruction is often misconstrued. It would be handy to represent differentiation as simply instructional decision- making through which a teacher creates varied learning options to address students’ diverse readiness levels, interests, and learning preferences.

True differentiation evolves from five elements that flow freely between each other: 

The learning environment that allows risk-taking, acceptance, purpose, and growth is the climate that nurtures differentiation. The teacher’s belief that all the students in the classroom can be successful and her ability to instill the growth mindset in her students is key. Teachers who view their students through the lens of “capacity,” work from the students’ strengths and interests to guide and coach them. There is opportunity for all students to access the curriculum with modifications and accommodations made for students with special needs or ELL students. The teacher is reflective both on her practices as well as tuning in to students to make sure every child is learning.

The curriculum should have clear goals about what students should know, understand, and be able to do. It should result in student understanding of important content and engage students in learning.  Goals for learning should be very precise in order to differentiate effectively. Assessment should be effective so as to be able to inform the teacher of the students’ status with KUD’s. (Know, Understand, Be Able to Do)  The teachers should be able to plan for students as they master the requirements as well as for students who have lacking skills or knowledge.

A focus on understanding will require students to apply, synthesize or create with tasks that allow the students to use their understanding of the content. Knowing that students will understand at various levels of complexity, the teacher will have to provide varied ways for students to develop understanding. Student understanding plays a large role in assessment along side knowledge and skills.

Engagement is central to differentiation.  In John Antonetti and Jim Garver’s  Look 2 Learn walkthrough protocol, student engagement is captured through noting evidence in the classroom of personal response, clear modeled expectations, emotional & intellectual safety, learning with others, choice, novelty, sense of audience, and authenticity. In order to conclude that students are “engaged” on the walkthrough protocol, 3 elements of student engagement need to be present.

Tomlinson refers to the notion of “teaching up” in her work on differentiation. She suggests that teachers begin designing lessons aligned to goals with the students who are advanced in their understanding in mind. Beginning planning with tasks that are of high cognitive demand and then planning scaffolding for others to access the task, increases the rigor for all. “Teaching up” affirms the message to the students of the teacher’s belief in their abilities and that she will support learning for all through varied pathways to the goals.

Clear understanding that differentiation is a flow of a risk-free learning environment, curriculum with clear goals around which student understanding can be developed and supported with appropriate assessment, and student work that engaging is essential for developing effectively differentiated classrooms.


  1. I love the concept of "teaching up." I have seen how this pulls up the lower students.

  2. Great information. Thank you for sharing!


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