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Differentiated Instruction


Author and educator Rick Wormeli notes in his book, Fair Isn't Always Equal that differentiated instruction is more than dividing students into groups -- the key is putting them into groups based on what you know about them.
Included: Listen to Rick Wormeli discuss how to apply differentiated instruction to different subject areas, homework, more.

In the book, author/educator Rick Wormeli has given middle and high school teachers the book he wishes he had had when he began teaching.

Recognizing that most educators struggle with moving differentiation from theory to practice, Wormelis newest book takes teachers behind the scenes of preparing a differentiated lesson, pulling together the research from a variety of differentiation experts, and offering practical advice gleaned from his own experiences teaching in a differentiated classroom.

Wormeli talked about his newest book and how the principles of differentiation not only result in sound teaching practices but lead to the professional aha moments or mini-epiphanies that fuel teachers to keep going.

Education World: What is (and what isnt) differentiation?

Rick Wormeli: The first thing that comes to mind when defining differentiated instruction is understanding that it is maximizing the learning that can happen over what traditionally happens with one size fits all lessons. At any point when youre choosing to maximize what students learn, as opposed to settling for what they can learn, that is indicative of a differentiated class.

In the book I use the phrases finessing the students for the curriculum and finessing the curriculum for students. I think it has to go back and forth -- so for example, you would teach the students to advocate for themselves by asking them which of the multiple intelligences best works for them or what their learning style is. Now Ill encourage students to advocate for those things in my classroom and in other peoples classrooms. That would be a sign of a differentiated class.

A big part of a differentiation is flexible grouping, but not individualized instruction -- that is a bit of a myth. No one is asking everyone to do independent programs for every single child. Were talking about flexible grouping within the class and making sure that youre adjusting your instruction based on assessment that means in a differentiated class there is a heavy emphasis on formative assessment over summative assessment Emphasis on summative assessment is a sign of a non-differentiated class.

"There are some people who think differentiating is just putting kids in groups. Thats only part of it; differentiation is putting them into groups based on something you know about them.
In a differentiated class, the principal should be able to walk down the hallway and happen to see you -- with no pre-planning, no advanced warning -- and ask you, How did assessment inform one of your decisions this week regarding any student or group of students? Your answers to that should trickle off your tongue right away; it should be very easy to answer.

There are some people who think differentiating is just putting kids in groups. Thats only part of it; differentiation is putting them into groups based on something you know about them. So just putting them into groups is not differentiation. But putting them into groups that are purposeful, based on their individual needs -- now were talking a differentiated class.

EW: Does scaffolding fit into differentiation?

Wormeli: Scaffolding is huge in the differentiated classroom. Scaffolding has a variety of different definitions. Im looking at it in terms of providing lots and lots of direct instruction early on -- a template perhaps that students follow word-by-word -- lots of support, lots of direct instruction, and then slowly removing those platforms over time so that eventually the student or groups of students can fly solo and be autonomous to the teacher in performing the task as described by the standard.

EW: What are some of the tools that are needed to manage differentiation in the classroom?

Wormeli: There are lots and lots of tools. One would be that youd get to know the students so well youd know what buttons to push with them and youd then push those buttons. Thats a very important part of differentiate instruction.

Youre going to be required to be flexible. You need to consider, Am I giving them more work or less work? as opposed to -- and the preferred way -- Am I giving them different work? Change the nature of the task, not so much the quantity of the task.

You need to think about:

  • Am I going to modify the content? (which is your legally mandated curriculum)
  • Am I going to modify the process by which they learn the content?
  • Am I going to modify the product where they prove what they learned?
  • Am I going to modify the emotional atmosphere (or the affect) of the room?
  • Am I going to change the learning environment? (whether it be self-contained or different groups or using adaptive technology)

I might use constructivism at one time, but another time Bernice McCarthys format model sounds good. You dont want to be in a rut -- in fact, a really good differentiated teacher is vigilant against being in a rut.

More on differentiation!
Click here to listen to Rick Wormeli discuss:

  • how to integrate a differentiated approach to instruction in a social studies class
  • how to use orbital or satellite studies
  • the role of formative assessment in a differentiated classroom
  • the importance of including visuals in teaching
  • about creating a classroom culture where fair isnt always equal
  • how homework takes on a new look in a differentiated classroom
  • how a teacher can find the time to differentiate

This e-interview with Rick Wormeli is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Brenda Dyck
Education World®
Copyright © 2008 Education World

Published 01/30/2008