Differentiation: What Works and What Doesn’t

Understanding Differentiation

Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products, or the learning environment, the use of ongoing assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction.”

-The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners by Carol Ann Tomlinson

In its simplest form, differentiation can be understood as teachers tailoring their pedagogical practice to suit the needs of different learners. They do so to ensure that the entire class has the opportunity to learn and perform to the best of their abilities. Learner readiness, learner’s interests or learning preferences are the typical parameters on the basis of which teachers differentiate their practices. Differentiation can happen at three levels:

  1. Differentiating content – diversifying  the way of presenting information to learners. This can be made possible with the use of different modes of information such as print, audio-visual, pictorial, models, manipulatives and simulations. There is no definite way to deliver information.
  2. Differentiating process – widening the range of the activities through which learners can master the content. This can be made possible by designing activities that engage learners through multiple ways of interaction and expression.
  3. Differentiating products – varying the ways in which learners can demonstrate their learning. This can be achieved by making the assessments diverse. A score on a written test must not be the only measure of a learner’s understanding of any given concept.

Differentiation at these levels require teachers to have clearly defined strategies to reach their goals and outcomes. According to Tomlinson, “Often, that’s where we miss the boat.”

Why do we miss the boat?

While the focus of differentiation has long been on learner preferences, it is about time we looked at differentiation as the very nature of learning and teaching. First of all, not all concepts can be taught in a singular manner. Different concepts require different kinds of delivery and visualisation for the effective achievement of the desired learning outcomes. It is not just the learner who defines differentiation. There are four reasons other than learner diversity that are worth examining in any context of differentiation.

  1. The teacher’s style and preferences

While we consider the classroom to be  learner centric, it is often at the cost of overlooking what a teacher has to offer in a classroom. Teachers have their own personal pedagogical beliefs and preferences. They also have unique teaching styles.  These would have taken years to develop, right from the impressions formed as a learner, to a trainee teacher and sometimes, even as a researcher. Can a pedagogic sermon on differentiation and instruction in a two hour workshop or conference enable a large-scale behavioural change? Such skepticism is pertinent because planning a differentiated lesson means planning multiple lessons within a single lesson plan. This, for a teacher operating alone in a classroom of thirty to forty learners, can be exhausting.

So what can work? Team teaching is one of the ways to make possible the implementation of differentiation in a classroom.

The team teaching model enables teachers to share the extra responsibilities involved in differentiation through collaboration, encourages sharing of materials and most importantly, enables taking turns in  teaching differently, yet in a way that suits each teacher. While it does push the boundaries of habit in a teacher, it isn’t overwhelming to warrant a dismissal.

  1. Prescribed textbooks

While the world has taken tremendous leaps in technology, our classrooms largely function with the good old key orchestrator- the textbook. When teaching, assessing  and learning tantamount to only finishing the chapters of a textbook, writing answers at the back of the book and learning assigned chapters for tests, where is the scope for differentiation?

Now, reading and listening, are two ways we acquire information. Writing and speaking are two ways in which we produce or express information. An interactive balance of these ways are needed even within a classroom. A textbook cannot be the sole proprietary source of information. Information must be presented visually and aurally for a comprehensive insight into any concept. Similarly, assessments must not be based on written tests alone, but should also include oral tests. This might sound simplistic and something already in practice. But are you teaching and assessing your thirty learners in all the four ways, across all the concepts? Do you have the time and the planning for it? How many such concepts would you be able to teach and assess in an academic year?

So what works? An adaptive technology that paces with each learner, allows the freedom of choice of input and makes it easy for the teacher to keep a track of every learner, should be the way ahead..

  1. Documentation

This probably requires the least discussion in the Indian context. A case in point would be the retraction of the CCE method by the CBSE. Founded on the principles of continuous assessment, and an effective method of assessment in contexts elsewhere in the world, CCE failed in India. Teachers were found doing more busywork than productive work. Their time was spent on hours of paperwork, creating and implementing assessments around the year based on a flawed framework. Those details are outside the scope of this article. However, this is more or less the same reason why differentiation has received the the proverbial ‘throw the baby with the bathwater’ treatment. It is preempted as a strategy that requires extra time, effort and copious amount of documentation. This worry is  irrelevant with the advent of effective analytics tools, enabled by smart technology, that does away with cumbersome paperwork.

  1. Standards based instruction

While national standards can serve as useful benchmarks, they can also be highly restricting in terms of creative boundaries. If you are asked to teach, so that learners can describe how coal can be used to produce electricity, you will seldom think of drawing a flowchart as an acceptable evidence instead of explaining the concept through a fifteen sentence paragraph. .As a result, all the thirty learners will learn to describe the process only by writing a fifteen sentence paragraph. While the ones with a flair for writing may get by in this process of assessment, the others fall invariably into a trap of rote memorisation, and this becomes a habit hard to break.

This is probably the most serious reason why differentiation fails. While learning and instruction is differentiated, assessment methods are standardised and require one single way of responding that pertains to a particular skill set that has been long established as an industry standard. Hence, teachers dismiss differentiation and help learners “catch up” through instruction, while the learners “keep up” with rigorous grade-level instruction.

A clearer and more inclusive interpretation of standards that suit varying ways of assessing the  learning of a student would be the way ahead, at least until the middle school, where targeted writing lessons over the course of years can help hone writing skills to suit the demands of standardised assessments in higher grades.

Making it work

From the above discussion, it seems evident that two prime factors need to be addressed to make differentiation feasible and effective.

  1. Managing time and effort

Differentiation allows learners to learn and demonstrate what they know through multiple methods. It demands the teachers to add depth to the teaching-learning process, by sourcing and putting together multiple sets of content. It is, therefore, perceived to complicate a teacher’s work.

This is a problem not just restricted to large classrooms. A heterogeneous class of fifteen students could be as taxing as a class of thirty. The degree of heterogeneity, the teacher’s attitude, expertise and beliefs are factors that need to be considered.

However, with the advent of technology, this problem has been more than solved. It should in fact be considered nonexistent. When educational endeavours are being made to deliver curriculum programs that address the very basis of differentiation, through interactive whiteboard content, hands-on materials, print materials,experiential learning kits and lesson plans that make their implementation feasible, the onus is no longer on the teacher to source multiple content or plan a lesson with multiple levels of differentiation. An adoption of such a curriculum program fulfills the needs of a classroom, where every kind of learning preference is addressed, without worrying about the number of learners and time consuming work to manually address each learner’s learning path individually.

Technology by design helps teachers become facilitators in the truest sense.

The teacher no longer has to read out only from a textbook and explain the working of the digestive system. 3D models of the system are available, both as manipulatives and as audiovisuals to show, and not just tell how the digestive system works. Similarly, chemical reaction simulators allow the teachers to show how a reaction works and the learners to understand hands-on, using multiple examples by simply varying the components and values in the equation, without the worry of the cost incurred if each student were to perform the experiment in a lab multiple times.

Technology also makes data handling easier for teachers by providing a detailed analysis of the performance of each student. Adaptive systems make differentiation less of a polite fiction and more of an effective reality.

Further, when the team teaching model, as discussed earlier in this article, is adapted, it eases the effort and time required to handle the volume of work that differentiation demands.

2. Reimagining our interpretations of national standards

The second reason that differentiation has received much flak is because terms like “differentiated instruction” , “differentiated learning”, “differentiated curriculum” and  “differentiated assessment” throw open a multitude of directions, and teachers do not have clear guidance to either reach level novice or to navigate to level expert at differentiation.

What are we differentiating? Is it the curriculum, is it the instruction, is it assessment, Is it learning?

In the context of interpreting predefined national standards as a list of learning outcomes, we run the risk of oversimplifying classroom practices, restricting them to the achievement of outcomes and ticking things off the academic calendar. To enable differentiation, we need to reimagine standards to include multiple ways of understanding and shift the focus to deep learning.  While technology addresses the differentiation of content, and to a certain extent, methodology by design, it is within the micro practices in the classroom where the teacher can make a difference. The teacher can make it work by turning the restrictions laid down by national standards into opportunities.

Take the example of the teaching of writing to middle school and high school learners. The national standards require learners to write an essay on any given topic. The standards define essay to have an introduction, a body and a conclusion. It also requires learners to use grade appropriate language, relevant ideas and examples. In a class of thirty, learners might be at different levels in terms of  the different parameters standardised for judging a learners ability to write an essay. An effective system that differentiates feedback to learners and allows for feedback cycles have research-backed evidence of academic gains than simple correction of essay scripts and grading them as A or B or a 7 out of 10.

Such strategies need to be based on concepts and context, as much as on learner and teacher preferences, to facilitate deeper learning.

Looking forward

A focus on deeper learning is pertinent in the light of the findings published by ASER in the past twelve years. Many children in elementary schools need urgent support for acquiring foundational skills like reading and basic arithmetic. In the 2018 report, it was found that even in learners aged 14-18, who have completed eight years of schooling, “a significant proportion still lack foundational skills like reading and math.”

Now, there are a host of factors that have resulted in such gaps. Differentiation may not be the solution for everything, but it is evident how every articulation of implementing differentiation points to the much needed solution for problems such as these gaps, that is, a-no-compromise balance between effectiveness and equity.

Differentiation is not easy. There’s no doubt that it’s a huge challenge.  However, it’s more challenging and detrimental to fit all learners within a single framework of outcomes and deal with the academic and behavioural ripples that affect the dynamics of not just the classroom but also the academic future of learners.

Soorya Menon

Soorya Menon has over thirteen years of experience in English language teaching and curriculum designing for the K-12 sector. She has completed her PhD in English Language Education from the English and Foreign Languages University. Currently, she is researching on the impact of digital education in the K-12 sector in India.

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