What is it?
Differentiated instruction or curriculum differentiation are terms used to describe the manner in which teachers modify learning environments and teaching practices to create unique learning experiences for unique students. Differentiation involves addressing the learning needs of specific students, or a group of students, rather than providing instruction as if all students learn the same way.
At West Covina Unified School District, differentiation is based on the California content standards and is an integral part of the core curriculum at each grade. It may be facilitated through flexible grouping and regrouping of students for each task or group of tasks based on need, interest, and ability.
It is generally agreed that differentiation involves the modification of the following facets of curriculum: content, process, environment and product expectation.
Content consists of ideas, concepts, descriptive information and facts. Content, as well as learning experiences, can be modified through acceleration, compacting, variety, reorganization, flexible pacing, and the use of more advanced or complex concepts, abstractions, and materials. When possible, students should be encouraged to move through content areas at their own pace. If they master a particular unit, they need to be provided with more advanced learning activities, not more of the same activity. Their learning characteristics are best served by thematic, broad based and integrative content, rather than just single-subject areas (Van Tassel-Baska, 1989).
To modify process, activities must be restructured to be more intellectually demanding. Students need to be challenged by questions that require a higher level of response or by open-ended questions that stimulate inquiry, active exploration and discovery. The goal is to always en courage students to think about subjects in more complex and abstract ways. Activity selection should be based on student interests and activities should be used in ways that encourage self-directed learning. Teachers should utilize a variety of ways to stimulate and encourage higher level thinking skills. Group interaction and simulations, flexible pacing and guided self-management are a few of the methods for managing class activities that support process modification (Berger, 1991).
All students learn best in an environment that is nonjudgmental, receptive and student centered. The learning environment should also include a wide variety of materials, provide some physical movement, and connect the school experience with the greater world. Although all students might appreciate such an environment, for students who are gifted it is essential that the teacher establish a climate that encourages them to question, exercise independence, and use their creativity in order to realize their full potential (Berger, 1991).
There are many ways teachers can encourage students to demonstrate what they have learned. Products can be consistent with each student’s learning style. They should address real problems, concerns, and audiences; synthesize rather than summarize information; and include a self evaluation process (Berger 1991).
The following is a list of differentiation strategies that may be found useful in planning lessons aimed at meeting the needs of all students:
- Ability Grouping – Small group or whole class grouping of students based on similar abilities.
- Acceleration – Progress through an educational program at rates faster or ages younger than conventional.
- Alternate Assignments – Assignments given to a particular student or small group instead of the assignment given to the rest of the class. Designed to be more challenging or to capitalize on a student’s special interests or skills.
- Cluster Grouping – Flexible grouping and regrouping of talented students within a classroom to accommodate different instructional needs; to allow for this possibility, a small number of students with similar talents are assigned to a particular teacher’s classroom.
- Compacting - Modifying or “streamlining” content, process or product in order to eliminate repetition of previously mastered material and to provide time for appropriate enrichment and/or acceleration activities while ensuring mastery of basis skills.
- Contracting - Allows students to contract for grades and/or choose from a variety of available project/product options. This strategy allows students an option to eliminate repetition of material already mastered, moving at their own pace, while insuring mastery of content through enrichment and/or acceleration.
- Competitions (Performing Academic) – Competitions which encourage a student to perform at a high level of skill or thinking, to solve challenging problems, and/or to create new products or perform.
- Cooperative Learning - A teaching strategy utilizing the concept of cooperative group effort in achieving a goal or purpose. Each participant has a determined role in helping the group reach their goal. Not synonymous with group work.
- Creative Thinking Skills – Activities or assignments which require the students to operate at the levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation. May be enhanced by teaching students the differences between the levels of thinking and by discussing the thinking levels/skills used in various activities.
- Enrichment – Students are provided with opportunities to be challenged with more complex, higher level thinking and/or broader based activities instead of regular classroom work.
- Extracurricular – Activities scheduled beyond/within the scheduled day.
- Flexible Grouping – The grouping of students based on similar interests or abilities. Groups change regularly according to purpose or topic.
- Interest Centers/Groups – Interest centers (often used with younger groups) and interest groups (often used with older learners) can provide enrichment and extended learning opportunities for students who demonstrate mastery/ competence with required work.
- Independent Study Projects – A programming option which allows a student or small group of students to pursue an area of interest related to a specific curricular area or an individual area of interest.
- Literature Circles – A model of instruction where several books of varying degrees of difficulty are read by children in small groups. These selections have a central theme, could be written by the same author, or could center on a certain style of writing.
- Mini-Centers – Individual mini-centers are designed to be unit or single subject specific. They are tools that can be used to explore topics or practice skills. Teachers can adjust the tasks to readiness levels or learning styles of different learners.
- Pretest – Assessment in which students demonstrate mastery of basic skills that are planned for regular class instruction in order to eliminate some work and allow students to move on to new material.
- Project/Product Options – Allowing student choices in the way they demonstrate acquired knowledge through their personal strengths and interests.
- Questioning Strategies – Questions can be used before, during and after a lesson to engage and challenge students to demonstrate their understanding of the lesson from the knowledge level to evaluation level. By incorporating a variety of questions at different levels of cognition, students are provided with an opportunity to clarify their thinking, increase their knowledge and deepen their understanding of the content.
- Reader’s Workshop – an instructional model for “real reading”. This model is student-centered, uses authentic literature and allows for self-selection of books. Students read at their own pace, reflect and talk about their reading with others.
- Subject/Content Acceleration – A student takes the next level of a particular subject at an earlier age/grade level than normal.
- Tiered Assignments – Teachers match student needs with assignments geared to the level of the learner. Assignments may be given to a particular student or small group instead of the assignment given to the rest of the class.
- Workshops – Students meet in a small group to participate in specific enrichment activities in their talent areas.
- Writers Workshop – A model of instruction which provides students with differentiated activities while participating in all areas of the writing process before the initial idea becomes a finished piece of writing. Students spend time on self-selected writing activities.
(source: School District of Elmbrook, WI, 1997)