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  • Writer's pictureolivershearman

Differentiation - A teacher struggle of support

Differentiation is one of the key skills a teacher needs to function and support all their students, but it's both difficult to cultivate and gets even harder the larger the class you are assigned to teach. So what is it? Differentiation is the concept of tailoring the content (lesson) to meet students where they are, eo that each individual can access the learning and develop themselves with teacher support.

In my experience there is a key difference between doing differentiation on the surface and truly, effectively differentiating. There are often four areas where differentiation is commonly described: content, process, product and environment. So what does it mean to differentiate in these different ways?

Let's start with content. Likely the most obvious. Providing students with different ways to access the content. Videos, articles, textbooks, experiments, project work and others provide a diverse set of ways to access what they are expected to know. While content can be changed for students of varying levels, this is not always desirable but sometimes necessary particularly if a student is a long way behind their peers (for whatever reason).

The next area is process. Rather than changing the content, the process to access the content is important. Students learning from a presentation, listening to a podcast, watching a video, reading an article etc. This is similar to content, however with content, the level can be adjusted and with process it is really about HOW they access rather than scaffolding the content or extending gifted and driven learners to content beyond the expected middle of the curve learners.

Let's consider product. When product is changed to differentiate for learners. It is the product that students produce to show their learning. Whether this is answers in a traditional test, students sharing their knowledge through a creative comic, creating a knowledge sharing song or poem and so on. This gives students a great opportunity, by differentiating for students natural talents or interests, yet it can make problems too since teachers will not be able to mark effectively. Therefore, this is likely not suited to summative assessments, but more likely formatives or classroom activities to learn through different methods.

The final member of the four is the environment. Are students expected to do the work in groups or as individuals? Will they be doing this work in class or given research time in the library? Giving students the right environment to tackle their work is an important consideration for effective differentiation.

A previous teacher of mine was able to do differentiation on a deeper level for me when I was an excellent scientific grade 9 student. She could see my interest and passion in the topic of black holes and she unleashed me on the school library and to make a personal project as an independent scholar. It was glorious and very enjoyable and likely - I believe - she found joy in it too.

So for high achievers one way of differentiating is to allow them to engage with personal projects. Others include giving them higher level content in the relevant subject or challenging them with additional more complicated tasks or more open ended / creative tasks and seeing what they can produce. Extension tasks and open-ended projects are very useful indeed and really help students stretch their natural talents or lean into their future specialities, such extension tasks might include article analysis and reading, video analysis, an independent learning framework that they can work through at their own pace or complete projects that are either teacher created or student developed and driven.

A great visual summary of many of the points I have talked about above and more is shown below from Miss Arid and all credit goes to her on the graphic. I was lucky enough to stumble on this image after I had already completed the blog post, but this adds extra points to consider and ways of differentiating.

As a final point that might assist in other teachers quest for differentiation, I would like to suggest this list of 50 differentiation ideas from site

I hope that the blog above has helped in some small way and supports even better teaching than before. Thanks for dropping by and thanks for reading.

Cheers and stay curious

Oliver - The Teaching Astrophysicist


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