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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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The “Lever” to Differentiation and Adding Rigor

Let’s make no mistake: differentiation requires extra time and effort. Individualizing instruction and making it appropriate to diverse learners requires additional planning, additional resources, and more attention to detail. I see no way around that. However, planning for differentiation itself and adding layers of rigor to instruction should not be an intimidating task that requires huge amounts of time. What I’m going to share in this blog will allow teachers to differentiate instruction with a mere tweak in planning.

Consider a fulcrum. It’s a pivot point where a lever turns. When used, a fulcrum provides incredible leverage, allowing one to accomplish tasks that would normally require much physical effort. The fulcrum or leverage point in the case of the differentiation might be considered the skill or action embedded within the standard (or learning objective). Let’s use this made-up science standard as an example:

Students will classify different types of animals and plants.

Depending on the needs of students, the action “classify” might prove challenging enough. Students must consider various groups of animals and plants, what characteristics and traits they have in common, etc. to be able to accomplish this standard. Now, let’s say that a teacher is trying to differentiate this standard for students who are struggling to master this skill. They may re-write it to say:

Students will describe the different categories of animals and plants.

The standard has been tweaked, serving as a scaffolding to help students eventually master the original standard. Activities could revolve around describing and becoming familiar with the various groupings of animals and plants before attempting to classify them.

But what if a student or group of students have mastered the original standard—they’ve mastered the ability to classify -how to differentiate for enrichment? Maybe the teacher rewrites the standard in this way.

Students will classify and compare and contrast the different types of animals and plants

Or for more rigor…

Students will classify and evaluate the different types of animals and plants and create their own category and justify its purpose.

The standard now requires even higher-levels of thinking. Students must not only classify the animals and plants and compare them but also create their own classification and defend it. Learning activities can be organized around this new level or rigor.

What’s important to understand in all this is that the teacher has not made major changes to the standard, rather simply adjusted the skill so that is more appropriate for a student’s current level of learning. Try taking a standard you are currently teaching and adjusting the skills -the action words—and see what happens.

The learning outcomes changes considerably, just with the changing of one word. Of course, you could also change the content required, for instance, students could classify additional groups of animals and plants or start to add more distinct groups, such as non-flowering and flowering plants. But in many cases, it may be enough to create higher-level thinking through altering the skills.

These small adjustments create large changes in what’s expected of students and the learning tasks they must complete. Focusing on the skills within a standard creates a leverage point that allows teachers to accomplish more through simple tweaks in instructional planning.