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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is a Ph.D student at the University of South Florida, where he also works as a teaching assistant, supervising and teaching pre-service teachers. Steve holds a master's degree in...
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Differentiation Can Work…If We Train Teachers from the Start

In recent years, educational experts have debated the concept of differentiation—that is varying/altering curriculum, content, and teaching methods to meet the individualized needs of students.

Let me join this conversation by saying that first, I believe differentiation can work to various degrees but requires much training and knowledge. Like education, it is inherently flawed and poses many challenges. I agree with Dr. Jim Delisle when he points out the incredible challenge of trying to educate a highly diverse groups of students, for instance, some highly gifted students, struggling readers, English Language Learners, all thrown into one classroom. I have the upmost respect for Dr. Delisle (having chatted with him prior to one of his conference keynote speeches), but I can’t resign to the idea that we can’t meet the needs of diverse learners in the same room. The reason is teachers have little or no choice. They cannot choose what students are enrolled in their classrooms. They can’t neatly divide the gifted students and place them in one classroom. They must work with who is sitting before them each day. This means differentiation becomes an absolute necessity. And as U.S. schools becomes even more diverse and will continue to in years to come, teachers must master this concept of differentiation.

“True” differentiation is, no doubt, an incredibly difficult task, requiring much time and skill. But that is not to say that we can’t use certain strategies, certain models to better meet the needs of students. Just because something is difficult and often imperfect, we don’t simply throw our hands up and write it off.  Raising children is extremely hard and, often, our efforts as parents, don’t seem to produce the results we want. Do we throw out the idea of parenting? Marriage and relationships is a concept that presents much challenge (just look at divorce rates), but we keep at it, don’t we? Even teaching itself is an imperfect profession. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we feel like we are not reaching our students, not producing the results we want. But we continue to search for tools, knowledge, and ideas that will make it work.

Differentiation is no different.

I think, however, the emphasis needs to be training teachers to differentiate effectively while they are in the student teacher stage. We need to start early. When pre-service teachers are learning the basics of the craft, that’s when this concept of differentiation needs to be drive home. For instance, I am currently teaching 27 student teachers a course on lesson planning. Throughout the course, we will hold deep discussions on diverse learners and how to differentiate using different models and strategies. During this time, these aspiring teachers will be introduced to techniques to alter content, methods, processes and assessments. They will learn that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to differentiation, but rather it depends on the students, the subject, and/or the lesson at hand. I have also built in curriculum that assists the student teachers in learning to differentiate for advanced and gifted learners-an often overlooked area. This way, when they have these students in class, they will have some concept of how to meet their needs.

Delisle suggests that those advocating for differentiation have never actual tried it themselves (e.g. university professors, curriculum developers, principals). As a classroom teacher for a decade, working with all levels of students, including gifted, I have implemented differentiation in my own instruction and coached other teachers in the concept. I have personally experienced the impact of tweaking instruction to meet the needs of students. I know that helping other teachers, for instance, add depth and complexity to assignments has prevented gifted students in that classroom from being bored and frustrated.

Sometimes, differentiating can result from simply reconsidering the design of your instruction. For example, I wrote in a previous blog about a teacher that teaches every fifth-grade math lesson by first presenting students with a challenge problem to see what they can do, then based on results from that task, breaks the students into three groups-remedial, progressing and advanced. She then delivers the proper instruction to students based on their grouping using various resources. Of course, it’s not the same as having one teacher to work with the gifted children or a single teacher to sit with the struggling learners—but it’s a strong attempt at varying instruction. Not everyone is doing the same thing at the same time—and that’s certainly a move in the right direction.