It doesn’t take much more than a quick Google search of the word differentiation to have countless books, articles, blogs, and websites at your fingertips. If you are like me, you can’t get enough! As educators, we love new ideas, new strategies, and new tips on how to improve our craft. We constantly strive to be more effective, more efficient, and more in tune with our students’ needs. It is true that adopting the philosophy of differentiation has the potential to make you more effective and efficient in meeting the needs of your individual students. However, trying to differentiate without the use of pre-assessments and formative assessments might leave you questioning the power of differentiation.
When Should I Differentiate?
Sometimes when we decide to try something new in our classroom we tell ourselves, “I am going to incorporate this new strategy twice every week!” Or maybe we are told by our building leader, “You need to use this strategy five times this semester!” When considering statements like these, it is important keep in mind that differentiation is not a single strategy. It is a philosophy of teaching where the goal is to be aware and responsive to the needs of each learner. There are many instructional strategies that support differentiation, but sometimes it is hard to know where or when to start. When should you differentiate in your classroom? The simple answer is this: differentiate when your students need differentiation. When students in your room need different learning experiences in order to reach the intended learning outcome, you need to provide different paths to those outcomes. When students in your room have differing levels of prior knowledge and are ready for different levels of rigor, you need to provide different layers to those outcomes. Our goal should not be to differentiate a certain number of times per week. Our goal should be to achieve high levels of learning for all students. This goal can be reached by knowing where our students are in relation to where they need to be (the learning outcome) and then providing what is needed to get each and every student to each and every learning outcome.
How Do I Know Where My Students Are?
In order to differentiate in a way that will positively influence student learning, it is critical that you embrace pre-assessments and formative assessments as part of your teaching approach. The only way to know when to differentiate for your students is to find out what content your students already know, what concepts they already understand, and what skills they can already perform. When planning a unit, start by determining the learning outcomes for the unit. Many teachers do this by looking at standards and then writing student-friendly learning targets. Once you have determined the learning outcomes, it is a good idea to go ahead and write the summative test for the unit. The best part about having a summative assessment that matches the desired learning outcomes is that you can often use the summative assessment as the pre-assessment. Give the pre-assessment to the students about two weeks before the start of a unit so you have time to go over the results and plan activities that reflect their needs. When you know where your students are, you can determine when you need to differentiate and when you do not. Once you have determined that differentiation is needed, you can implement one of many strategies. As you move through the unit, remember to utilize formative assessments and continue to reflect on whether or not students’ needs warrant a differentiated instructional approach. ASCD’s website is a great place to start for resources on differentiated instruction.
Whether you are starting your differentiation journey or have been traveling this road for a while, utilizing pre-assessments and formative assessments as part of your responsive teaching practice will help bring to light when differentiation is needed to move your students’ learning forward. Effective assessment practices can help determine where students are so you can better address your students’ individual needs. After all, every student deserves to learn something new every day.
Tricia Kurtt is a 2015 ASCD Emerging Leader who currently serves as a high school instructional coach and gifted education teacher in Norwalk, Iowa. She is a National Board–certified teacher who recently graduated from Iowa State University with a master’s degree in educational leadership. Connect with Kurtt on Twitter @tkurtt77.