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MYTH: Differentiation is synonymous with grouping students according to ability.
Differentiated instruction often involves group work. It does not mean, however, separating students into groups based on their level or perceived ability and assigning different work to each group.
One effective differentiation tactic is to put students into heterogeneous groups, where each student brings some particular skill or strength to the group (and has a weakness that needs to be addressed as well). That way, students become responsible for each other’s learning and can teach and mentor each other. By understanding how students tend to find a foothold in different academic areas (some may excel at detailed work, others at understanding the structure of information), teachers can better form heterogeneous groups which facilitate meaningful conversation. Technology can help scale these efforts by providing suggested groupings based on both student strengths and weaknesses.
For example, in an English composition class, a teacher might break students into groups of three, with each student devoted to critiquing a different aspect of peer papers: for example, clarity of argument, style and grammar, and paragraph development. The student responsible for “clarity of argument” would look at the thesis statement and topic sentences and see if each paper holds together logically. The student responsible for style and grammar would check for grammar mistakes and evaluate the diction, sentence patterns, and flow of paragraphs. And the student responsible for paragraph development would evaluate the content of the paper and depth of research. Of course, none of these areas are really separate; understanding this is part of the point of composition. And so the teacher could encourage students to discuss the relationships between these criteria: How does wordiness muddle the clarity of an argument? How do problems in paragraph development underscore the lack of a clear thesis?
- MYTH: Differentiated instruction is synonymous with student choice.
Student agency is one important aspect of differentiated instruction. Productive differentiated instruction, however, often goes beyond letting students choose their own context for a learning exercise. For example, a teacher could differentiate lessons for a reading class by asking students not only to choose their own book from a list but also by providing tiers of questions that give students of all levels an entry point into the exercise. A few examples:
- “Write a journal entry about one day in the life of character x from his perspective.”
- “How do you think this character would respond to _____ situation?”
- “Write a letter to character x pretending to be character y or z.”
- “Write a story of your own in the same style as the author.”
Students could select the prompt that is appropriate for their level.
In a math class, a teacher could differentiate assessments by providing students with different tiers of questions and including a “beast” question to challenge the most advanced students.
- MYTH: Differentiated instruction is an excuse to let students only study what they are interested in and good at — and in that sense eliminates many important challenges.
With differentiated learning, productive challenge can be heightened and unproductive challenge minimized. Here is an example of the distinction:
Productive challenge: Susan has mastered fractions and division but never successfully tackled multi-step problems that include both fractions and division. The next series of questions she is presented with challenges her to “put it all together” and do problems that involve both of those concepts. When she handles this successfully, she will move on to word problems that also incorporate these concepts. Throughout all this, she will remain in a state of flow.
Unproductive stress: Matthew is struggling with multi-step problems and doesn’t know where to begin. He tries to discreetly look at a classmate’s work to see if he can copy her answers and figure it out from there. Eventually, when the class moves on to word problems that build on the skills he is supposed to have mastered, he goes to the bathroom because he is afraid of being called on.
Differentiated instruction seeks to put every single student in Susan’s situation so that they are making the most of their time and experiencing what it feels like to successfully master concepts.
- MYTH: With differentiated instruction, students are all on their own unique path and lose the self-awareness that comes from interacting with peers.
Differentiated learning can help each student maximize their potential by shaping the curriculum so that each student understands their proficiencies at a granular level and is given a direct path to improving them. In a one-size-fits-all classroom, students may easily develop crutches or lean on certain abilities at the expense of others. The student who grasps concepts quickly but makes tiny mistakes in spelling and arithmetic, for instance, may not really be keyed into her lack of precision as long as she’s doing well relative to her peers. The student who is so mentally quick that she derives formulas on the spot and never memorizes facts or knowledge may not realize she has difficulty with long-term preparation or retaining information until much later in life, when certain opportunities become closed to her. In a differentiated classroom, self-awareness is maximized and students are better equipped to function in a learning community.
Because each student is challenged in the right way, proper differentiated instruction provides each student with enough understanding of a subject to participate in classroom discussions and debates when they occur. This works well for shy or lost students for whom differentiated instruction can provide easy access points into classroom conversations and tangible achievements on which to build more confidence.
After successfully mastering history concepts in a differentiated classroom, for instance, students might create a speech, a song, a powerpoint presentation, a gallery walk — all on different sides of a debate and then engage with one another using the evidence they collect during their process. In this sense, differentiated instruction increases rather than decreases the productive aspect of friction with other minds.
- MYTH: Differentiated instruction is a new teaching approach.
As we explain in the graphic below, hardworking teachers today, regardless of the technology available, are already differentiating instruction according to factors such as what students know already, what they need to learn, their engagement level, learning patterns, personal and course goals, strengths, and weaknesses. Whether it is acknowledged as such, differentiated instruction has always been a part of effective teaching. After all, it is natural for teachers and other professionals to adjust the style and content of their delivery depending on the audience.
While differentiation has been around for generations, adaptive learning technology can help teachers automatically differentiate instruction, so that students master basic skills as efficiently and effectively as possible. With the freed up time, students can engage in classroom activities like debates, discussions, research projects, and other sorts of authentic and project-based assessments.
- MYTH: Differentiated instruction is only necessary in classrooms where there are students from very different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Socioeconomic background is just one difference between students. Students have different educational backgrounds, attention spans, interests, language abilities, cultural backgrounds, temperaments, and preferred instructional styles. Some students, for instance, are held back in math because of their reading comprehension ability. Some may respond well to open-ended projects like research assignments or creative reports, while others may enjoy the challenge of puzzles and problem sets. Differentiated instruction helps address all these differences efficiently and effectively.
- MYTH: Differentiated instruction is the solution to every educational problem.
Differentiated instruction is a teaching method that most teachers have incorporated into their classroom at some point or another, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. Like any teaching strategy, it is not a panacea. Even when lessons are differentiated by a hardworking teacher, outcomes may suffer if the class size is too big or if the facilities and infrastructure are subpar. Technology can help automate differentiated instruction and make it more scalable, but it still requires the efforts of a dedicated teacher who brings emotional intelligence, cultural understanding and empathetic pedagogy to the classroom. When those efforts are supported by caring administration, ample resources, and smaller class sizes, learning outcomes can improve dramatically.