Effective Classroom Differentiation
by Katherine Vazquez
Differentiation is the new buzz word in education. In many respects, it seems like a wonderful thing. However, the obvious downside is that it means even more work for the teacher. For the instructor, it means she can’t assume that everyone is on the same page intellectually. This is a realistic assumption, and most classrooms across the country (especially in major cities) are filled with a variegated sample of students who are from a multitude of different backgrounds, speak different primary languages, and have varying paces of cognitive development.
In practice, the best way to approach differentiation would be to provide at least two (and ideally three) different in-class application activities to be completed once the lesson is done. The first activity would be the most basic and the simplest; this is the one that all students would be expected and required to complete. It would cater to the lowest level learners and/or to those for whom English is not the primary language. The task would be basic recall or identification and would be phrased using the lowest levels of diction from Bloom’s taxonomy. Scaffolding would be built into the activity, and usually what this looks like is a fill-in-the-blank passage with a word bank. The next two activities would be progressively more challenging and, of course, focus on higher order processes like synthesis and evaluation. The key with this type of differentiation is that every student has something that is appropriately challenging. One would assume that gifted learners would move through the first two tasks with ease (or perhaps skip them entirely) and quickly reach the application activity that is most taxing on their mental faculties.
The other aspect of differentiation is to cater to different learning styles, a la Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. This would foster interest in the subject at hand by appealing to the student’s different proclivities. For instance, a student with bodily kinesthetic talent may best relate to a literacy assignment that required some type of physical coordination. This could be orchestrated through a simple game in which the students get to throw a soft ball through a hoop if they answer a specific social studies question correctly. Students with visual-spatial intelligence may learn best by drawing specific events in a story and presenting their artwork in a small gallery in which they explain to other students the significance of the pieces they created. The options are endless, and depend only on the creativity of the teacher.
Differentiation within the classroom may substitute for a system that maintains students in separate groups or “tracks” throughout the elementary experience. The need to have these separate tracks within one classroom is can be daunting for new, prospective teachers. It may even complicate grading. For instance, if one student was only required to complete a lower level activity, how can one determine that his A or B is equivalent to another student’s A or B, if they were unable to complete higher order work?