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Possibilities for Differentiation

Author: Dawn Mitchell


Good Morning!

In my conversations with several first year teachers over the last several weeks, we have discussed how very different the needs of the learners in your classes can be. Elementary and early childhood teachers have shared that you have students in your first or fifth grade classes that are on drastically different reading and math levels with varied interests, personalities, needs, and abilities.  Middle and high school teachers have shared that you thought you would be teaching, say 8th grade Algebra, but you realized that many of your students are struggling with some foundational components while others are flying through everything you give them. You have realized that while your standards are for your content, your instruction has to align with your students to be effective.  You’ve discovered that who you teach influences how you teach.  For this reason I wanted to focus this week’s blog on strategies for supporting effective differentiation.

In the opening chapter of Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom,  ASCD author and faculty member Carol Ann Tomlinson and Tonya R. Moon write,

“Many years ago, Hiam Ginott (1972) argued that the teacher is the weather-maker in the classroom, with the teacher's response to every classroom situation being the determining factor in whether a child is inspired or tortured, humanized or dehumanized, hurt or healed."

In fact, research has repeatedly indicated that a teacher's emotional connection with a student is a potent contributor to academic growth. (Allen, Gregory, Mikami, Hamre, & Pianta, 2012; Hattie, 2009) That connection enables the student to trust that the teacher is a dependable partner in achievement.  In a differentiated classroom, the teacher's aim is to make the classroom work for each student who is obliged to spend time there. Thus the teacher is attuned to the students' various needs and responds to ensure that the needs are met. Various scholars (Berger, 2003; Dweck, 2008; Hattie, 2012b; Tomlinson, 2003) have noted that the teacher's response to student needs includes the following:

  • Belief—Confidence in the students' capacity to succeed through hard work and support—what Dweck (2008) calls a "growth mindset"; the conviction that it is the students' committed work rather than heredity or home environment that will have the greatest impact on their success.

  • Invitation—Respect for the students, who they are, and who they might become; a desire to know the students well in order to teach them well; awareness of what makes each student unique, including strengths and weaknesses; time to talk with and listen to the students; a message that the classroom belongs to the students, too; evidence that the students are needed for the classroom to be as effective as it should be.

  • Investment—Working hard to make the classroom work for the students and to reflect the strengths of the students in it; enjoyment in thinking about the classroom, the students, and the shared work; satisfaction in finding new ways to help students grow; determination to do whatever it takes to ensure the growth of each student.

  • Opportunity—Important, worthy, and daunting things for the students to do; a sense of new possibilities; a sense of partnership; roles that contribute to the success of the class and to the growth of the students; expectation of and coaching for quality work.

  • Persistence—An ethic of continual growth; no finish line in learning for teacher or students; no excuses; figuring out what works best to support success; the message that there's always another way to approach learning.

  • Reflection—Watching and listening to students carefully; using observations and information to make sure each student has consistent opportunity to learn and succeed; working to see the world through the student's eyes; asking what's working and what can work better.

Tomlinson and Moon make the point that when these components are present in the culture of the classroom effective differentiation can occur.  Figure 1.1 above in the book provides a helpful visual that shows the next steps in understanding how teachers can differentiate through content, process, product, and affect/environment according to students’ readiness, interests, as well as their learning profile.

I want to encourage you to read Chapter One- Differentiation: An Overview this week. Consider how you can increase engagement and learning outcomes for all of your students, regardless of ability and background, by differentiating instruction to meet their needs. 



Dawn Mitchell

South Carolina ASCD President

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