Do you ever notice that when the word “differentiation” comes up in an education conversation, people start to look down, shift their eyes and look like the kid from A Christmas Story who is just begging not to be called on?  Why is that?  Differentiation is a great thing!  But I’ve noticed through the years that differentiation can be so misinterpreted and misused that it gets a bad rap.  Part of using differentiation well is in providing equity for our students, which I talked about last Friday in our Free Friday video.  And equity is key to student achievement!

So why do we place so much emphasis on equity?

Is it just so that we can say that we are accepting of others differences and strive to create an equal playing field?  In actuality, equity is so much more than an IEP or a multicultural day.  It lies within the instruction itself: the topics, the delivery, the assessments – all of it.  Our instruction must develop so that students of all levels are competing only with their best selves, not with someone within their “group”.  We must get away from the system of groupings, which can cloak itself as differentiation.  

Sometimes, differentiation masks itself in the classroom as grouping students based on their skill level.  For example, all students would take a pre-assessment and however they performed in that assessment determines their grouping.  If they achieved a low score, all of those students would be grouped together.  The same would be true of an average or a high score.  The teacher then provides specific activities for each group.  For the lower scorers, the teacher would provide remedial instruction.  For the middle group, the teacher would provide on-level instruction, and the high-scoring group would be provided with advanced materials.

This seems like we are providing equity, doesn’t it?

It looks like we are differentiating the instruction to meet each learner where they are.  Except that in the process that I just outlined, the students are actually in homogenous groups and are receiving the base level of education.  For the students in the below and on groups, there is no access to rigor.  This isn’t equitable.  Each student should be provided with the opportunity to meet their individual targets while at the same time getting the chance to stretch to the next level.  If you never provide that mixed grouping, students will always remain below, on or above rather than working at their true individual potential.

True differentiation is a critical equity piece.  By understanding a child’s learning style and natural intelligence set, we can then provide instruction which both challenges and lifts up each student.  Thus, differentiation becomes MIXED groups of students with varying needs and skills so that each student becomes a support to the others in the group.  The teacher then focuses on providing the tools necessary for each student to succeed individually and as a group.  To do this, we must have a clear understanding of brain learning styles and the variety of ways that our students learn.

View this video on Brain Learning Styles, provided by Edutopia:

Yes – differentiation takes time and that is a precious commodity in our classrooms.  But don’t make differentiation a dirty word because it takes more of YOUR time.  Make it a shining word of example for meeting the needs of every child, every day.