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Differentiation in the Real World

As teachers, we often differentiate for our students. We adjust the goals, materials, and environment to meet the individual needs of our learners. Some say that we provide a disservice to students when we alter learning experiences, as the real-world does not offer accommodations. But is that true? Let’s look at three common ways we differentiate in the classroom - adjusting time expectations, partnering students, and formative assessment - and see those play out in the real world.

Each morning, I work out with three other women. It’s horrible and grueling but we keep coming back because we have a camaraderie and make each other stronger. The other women are (much) faster and more coordinated than I am. Exercises involving agility or balance often end in laughter due to my clumsy efforts. However, much to my surprise, I am the strongest one there. Never the athlete, I made it to midlife without realizing my physical strength. That’s been fun.

Our coach switches up the workouts. They might include endurance or strength or both. Some workouts are long and some are short. Some he calls “surprises.” Those are usually dreadful. One day, as I was passed out on the floor after burpees, I realized that, like a classroom teacher, Coach uses differentiation in the workouts.

Adjusting Time Expectations

Students often receive extra time in differentiation, but that might mean that they finish after everyone else, all the time. When possible, try reversing that time allotment, allowing them to start early and finish with class.

I’m the slowest runner, always coming in last place when we “run the hill.” One day, Coach staggered our starts, allowing me to go first. He kept everyone back for quite some time, giving me a big head start, and I finished first. I know that my time was slower than everyone else’s but I finished first! With the small accommodation of a timeframe adjustment, I did the same work I’d always done, but felt more successful.

Partnering Students

Teachers often partner students with differing abilities. Consider the individual strengths of your students and group them in a way that those strengths can be leveraged to support others.  

Sometimes, Coach writes partner workouts where two people split up the work. If these workouts always involved pure aerobic activity, no one would want to partner with me because I would slow down their overall time. But I see Coach take into account our different strengths. One partner workout involved running and heavy lifting, making me a commodity for my strength rather than just a liability because of my speed. Another involved running the block for 20 minutes. While one partner ran, the other rested. I was an asset that day! Since I take so long to run, my partner my partner was able to rest more than anyone else.

Formative Assessments

Help your students find a measure of success through formative assessments. Do they know more today than they did last month? Is there something in which they can take pride? Celebrate these accomplishments.

At the end of each workout, we use a tracking app and enter our completion times and weights used. The app automatically ranks us each day. On days that emphasize speed, agility, or balance, I come in fourth place. (That’s out of four people, mind you, but the app still gives me a fourth-place shout-out.) On days that emphasize strength, I get the first-place medal. We also compare our current times to past times, as workouts are often repeated. We see how much we’ve improved, and we get excited when a teammate accomplishes something new.

Through differentiation, you can help each student grow as an individual, create community in the classroom, and set them up for success. In what ways do you see differentiation in your life?

Written by: AMY C. JOHNSON, Ph.D. / ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR
Ashford University/Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood Education

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