I dislike the word differentiation. I think the goal is important — to teach so that all students learn, regardless of their academic background, prior experiences, identity, or any other factor. It’s really hard to teach lessons that effectively support learners who are struggling as well as learners who find the content easy.

But differentiation is often conflated with “give different work to different students”. When teachers describe a lesson as “fully differentiated”, they usually mean “every student did different work”. I worry that this implicitly lowers expectations, prevents students who are behind from catching up with their peers, and creates far more work for teachers than it’s worth.

I do give students different work at times, but as one of the last strategies I try. I instead try to find tasks with a low floor and a high ceiling, to teach toward big ideas that students can engage with on multiple levels, to make those big ideas explicit and ensure students engage with them multiple times in multiple contexts, to make learning feel relevant to students with a range of backgrounds, to incorporate scaffolds for tasks that allow all students to access them, to provide extra support and extension either inside or outside of class, and to build relationships so that students are more likely to engage with challenging ideas and buy into classroom routines.

I think that those strategies are incredibly important to my teaching, and I think that they should be grouped together one idea. But I don’t like calling them differentiation, because when I talk about these strategies as differentiation, other teachers just assume I’m talking about giving students different work.

4 thoughts on “Differentiation

  1. Mary Dooms

    I like to think of differentiation as opportunities for students to get what they need. For example time is set aside for a workshop day for reteaching, practicing and extending. All students are exposed to low floor-high ceiling tasks, but there are days when students may need intervention or extension. In this model the teacher has high expectations for every student. Lesser work is not assigned. It’s simply more scaffolding or practicing the concept with “friendlier numbers.” It’s too bad differentiation is getting a bad rap.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      I really like that perspective, of all students getting what they need. Definitely encompasses all the ideas I include in that umbrella.

  2. Jeff lisciandrello

    The standard definition of differentiation recognizes four categories: product, process, content, and environment – this broader definition actually includes the “low floor, high ceiling” tasks you describe, whereas a narrower definition is implied by thinking of it as “giving different work to each student.” While I agree it is important to use several types of differentiation, there are many situations where students who are many grade levels behind their peers will not “catch up” based solely on performance tasks and wishful thinking. It really depends on the classroom and students, but personalized learning platforms can go a long way in giving struggling students a pathway to success.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      I think I prefer that product, process, content, and environment definition you mention, but I still think it focuses too much on the means than on the ends. I want differentiation to be laser focused on positive outcomes for every student, and flexible in how I get there. I agree that personalized learning platforms can be helpful, but I have my own skepticisms of the premises of many of those, and I want to have as many tools as I can to meet the needs of my students.


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