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.