I remember being told in education classes that it was important to differentiate. I’ve forgotten most of the details of that class, but I’ve seen the sentiment more times than I can count since then. It’s often used to describe lessons where each student has a problem exactly in their zone of proximal development, or a lesson that appeals to visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners in different ways, or a lesson that allows students to present their ideas through any of the multiple intelligences. I’m going to withhold my opinion on the research behind these ideas for now — that’s not my point. My point is simply that, even if these lessons are particularly effective, they aren’t worth the time.
I’ve come to the conclusion that great differentiation is actually really humble, and consists mostly of a few simple things. First, my students should spend significant time each class doing math — individually, partners, groups, whatever — giving me time to check in with and support students who need it, and making strategic decisions about where my time as the teacher is spent. Second, as often as possible, I should give my students opportunities to work on low-floor, high-ceiling tasks — tasks that have multiple entry points, and a great deal of opportunity for extension. These problems aren’t easy to find, but there are plenty of resources out there, and a few of these problems are worth a lot more mileage in class than a few dozen typical exercises. And finally, students need to be able to talk to each other in productive ways that support each others’ learning and create more avenues for learning than I can facilitate alone.
This isn’t all there is to it. I also need to scaffold language for English Language Learners and consider accommodations for students with disabilities. Small changes in the materials I put in front of kids can make a difference in their ability to access it. Some teachers have instructional aides or co-teachers to provide additional support. There are plenty more tricks I have yet to learn.
But my basic point here is simple. People who talk about differentiation — and especially people who run PD or write books about it — live in a bit of a fantasy world where teachers have the time and ability to, more or less, write multiple lessons for a single class. This sounds really nice. It honors the fact that all of our learners are different, and appeals to the belief that every student can succeed if they get that “just right” instruction. Maybe some of this is actually effective. But I really believe that the time spent doing any of that planning would be better spent doing any number of other things — tutoring after school, calling parents, spending more time anticipating student thinking, examining student work to see where students are. And more. The best differentiation is an engaging lesson with multiple entry points and opportunities for both me and my students to support everyone’s learning as flexibly as possible. The tools that go into that aren’t super flashy, but they lead to student learning, and leave me the time to plan another great lesson tomorrow.