Search form

Readiness Differentiation: Daring to Get Back on My Bike

Voice of ExperienceIn this week's Voice of Experience essay, educator Max Fischer compares his first steps at creating a differentiated classroom to learning to ride a bike. Differentiating without drawing attention to students' ability levels has been the biggest challenge.

Max W. Fischer


"The challenge is in the early days when the skills feel new and uncertain to us. At that point, the trick is to ensure that we're moving forward, but not pushing ourselves beyond reason."

--- Carol Ann Tomlinson on learning to create a differentiated classroom, from Different Strokes for Little Folks: Carol Ann Tomlinson on "Differentiated Instruction

A small child's first attempts at riding a bike often end in failure. Without training wheels, rough landings are par for the course.

In my classroom in recent weeks I've been reminded of my own first experiences with a two-wheeler, and those of my children. I've been reliving those bike-riding baby steps as I attempt the daring act of readiness differentiation.

More Voices

Click to read Voice of Experience essays from previous weeks.

Differentiation, which employs a wide variety of instructional strategies to meet the learning needs of all students in a classroom, is something I've been working toward for years. If I do say so, I've experienced some success with topical differentiation (giving students choice when it comes to the topics they explore) and learning style differentiation (providing activities that appeal to the spectrum of learning styles), but readiness differentiation -- instruction dictated by a student's readiness, or ability, to comprehend a concept or develop a skill -- has presented a much bigger challenge.

Thirty-three seventh graders in a social studies classroom, with reading levels that span grades 4 to 12, using a textbook that challenges the average seventh grader That's a daunting scenario for focusing on the readiness component of differentiation in content-area comprehension. But as I was about to teach a lesson on the legacy of the Islamic Empire of 1,000 years ago, I decided to give it a go


After the students and I had read and discussed some of the background information from our textbook, I devised a day of differentiated comprehension activities. I attempted to combine all three aspects of differentiation: topical interest, readiness, and learning style.

Topical Interest. Each student would choose to focus on one of two topics, each a state instructional indicator.

  • How ancient Baghdad developed into an opulent society via trade (rather than conquest)
  • Cultural contributions of the medieval Arab/Islamic world

Readiness. For me, the critical stumbling block toward readiness differentiation has always been How can I present different levels of instruction without making any student feel inferior? For this lesson, I developed five activities from which students could choose. I developed activities with the students' classroom grade averages in mind. For example,

  • With my "A" students in mind, I created the most abstract assignment: I presented 17 objects that symbolized lifestyle advances in Baghdad or scientific and/or cultural advances spurred by medieval Islam. The objects ranged from a croquet mallet (representing the invention of polo) to a test tube (symbolizing the introduction of chemistry). Students could select any ten items and write an explanation of how each was representative of a milestone.
  • I gave another assignment with my "A" students in mind: Write a poem to demonstrate your knowledge of one of the two instructional indicators. (See Topical Interest above.)
  • With my "B" and "C" students in mind, I presented two other assignments: Create a display board related to either of the topics/indicators, or draw pictographs to represent key Arab contributions or elements of affluent life in Baghdad.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, with my low-average students -- and a specific one-page segment of the textbook text -- in mind, I gave the following assignment: Read page 126 and create a bullet-point list of Arab/Islamic contributions.

Learning Style. The assignments targeted a couple of Howard Gardner's intelligences. Comprehension and writing promote linguistic intelligence. The display board and pictograph activities targeted visual/spatial intelligence. In addition, with the possible exception of the last activity, all the choices challenged students to use high-level thinking skills to create a product.

The critical element in this lesson was that I gave students a choice. No student was kept from "climbing the ladder." While the "A" students were expected to select one of two assignment choices I had perceived as challenging, the other students had five activity options.

On the day set aside for this activity period, I met with each task group to clarify lingering questions about instructions and expectations, and to give students an opportunity to share some of their ideas. Students had the entire period to complete the activity. Many students ended up completing their work at home.


So how did this fledgling attempt at readiness differentiation go? Students seemed motivated by having a choice of activities, and the results were very encouraging. The combination of multiple readiness prompts and some collaborative work time resulted in a higher-than-normal number of students completing the assignment for the next day with a greater degree of success.

My biggest concern about readiness differentiation has always been that the structure, which is built on some "ability grouping" concepts, might stigmatize kids. Middle school students despise being viewed as different, especially when they are at the low end of the ability scale. However, the "climbing the ladder" characteristic of this activity allowed lower-ability students some upward mobility. Some were very content with the basic bullet-point assignment and enjoyed a taste of success. Others were challenged and motivated to tackle a more difficult task.


Are there any downsides to this seemingly "win-win" approach? For sure, creating multiple activities takes time, and other priorities -- such as grading hundreds of papers a week -- often take precedence. But I have always been challenged by, and enjoyed, discovering new ways for all students to be successful. As I weigh my responsibilities and priorities, I think creating and implementing an activity period a couple times a month seems a reasonable goal at this time. Over time I will develop a stockpile of activities, and days of readiness differentiation will become more frequent.

Clearly, I am not yet a master of differentiation. My methods are not without flaws. And I have to face the fact that there are still students who did not complete the assignment successfully. But this "tike" on his first "differentiation two-wheeler" has felt the exhilaration of the wind in his face. I'm well on my way to overcoming my fear of falling. Any hesitation I had is eased by my strong belief in my students' learning abilities and a realization that I can do this at a pace I can handle.


Strategies That Work: Differentiated Instruction
Discover how research into how students learn led to changes in how teachers teach -- and the differentiated model of education.

Education World Glossary of School Issues
Scroll down to "Differentiated Instruction."

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient and medieval history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max Fischer
Education World®
Copyright © 2005 Education World