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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is a Ph.D candidate 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...
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How to Practically Differentiate (Part 1)

Let’s be honest. Differentiation in the classroom is not easy. You read a bunch of articles or listen to speakers on the topic and it sounds nice, but implementing differentiation practices amidst the challenges and daily demands of teaching is another matter.

What I’m going to share is a model that comes from a teacher, who presented to a group of pre-service teachers under my supervision. It was one of the most practical, effective differentiation designs I have experienced. Yes, it does require a bit more preparation in regards to varying materials for students, but if you believe like I do, that differentiation instruction for diverse leaners is most appropriate and equitable in education, then the extra effort is worth it.

(For simplicity sake, I’m going to present this teacher’s approach using math as the content. The design can be adjusted to fit whatever subject you are teaching).


Phase 1: What Can They Already Do?

The teacher begins every lesson by posting a challenge problem or question on the overhead. Students have five minutes or so to attempt the problem. The teacher circles the room with a clipboard, marking which students correctly answered the problem and which students had difficulty. She notes misconceptions.

At this point, the teacher decides what to teach during this given lesson. For instance, if most of the class is struggling, she may teach a whole group lesson. On the other hand, if the class seems to complete the problem rather easily, it’s time to proceed to the next lesson. What happens in many cases is she’ll have a mix: several students have already mastered the skill, some need more practice, and the remainder need extra help. Time to proceed to Phase 2.

Phase 2: Differentiate

Based on the initial challenge problem results, the teacher divides the class into three groups: enrichment, practice, and remedial. This is where the extra preparation comes in—the teacher has, in advance, prepared materials for each group. For example, she has set aside on the enrichment table, worksheets or activities that further challenge the students. This could include adding more complexity or introducing the next lesson.  She has also prepared work for the practice group and materials for her remedial group, where she might scaffold the skill. The amount of time spent in this differentiate phase will vary, but it will constitute the majority of the lesson.


Phase 3: What Have They Learned?

Now, it’s time to assess what the students have learned.  The teacher posts on the overhead another challenge problem, similar to the one at the start of the lesson. Students have about five minutes to solve the problem. The teacher again records data, which she will use for planning future instruction (since the enrichment group has already been assessed for mastery, you may want to allow them to continue working on their advanced content during this assessment and focus on the other two groups).

Using this design, you derive several benefits. First, students are engaged in content are appropriate levels of rigor. You are adjusting instruction based on what they can do on a given lesson on a given day. Second, providing enrichment to students who are ready “frees” you up to focus energy on students struggling with the material. It’s not that you ignore the advanced students-rather you are allowing them to move at a faster, more appropriate pace. Also, notice I did not say that the gifted students automatically move into the enrichment group—this is based on how they perform/score on the initial challenge problem.

My wish is that you see how this three-phase design helps break down differentiate into a practical, manageable practice, which can be implemented on a regular basis. During the next post, I will offer another conceptual model for practical differentiation.