Real-World Differentiation Strategies

Tuesday, October 1, 2013 -- Scott Sterling

We would all like to be differentiation rock stars, where every student that walks in our door has an experience tailored to them. Background learning gaps or achievement gaps simply don’t exist.

Perhaps that’s possible with unlimited funding, unlimited class time, and/or smaller class sizes, but those of us in the real world need to operate within our means. Nevertheless, there are still some things to do to upgrade the differentiation experience for each student that cost very little money, time, or manpower.

Stack the small group decks

Nowhere in No Child Left Behind does it say that when students work in groups that they should be able to work with their friends. Allowing them to pick their own groups actually works against many educational goals. Group students by ability, then make sure each of those categories is represented in the working groups. Suddenly each group has it’s own high-performing mini-teacher.

If you’re really sneaky, you can even give the kids the impression that the groups are random by allowing them to choose cards out of a stacked deck or a similar strategy to give them ownership of the groups without giving them ownership of the groups.

Choice = differentiation

A key component of differentiation strategies is giving the students as much choice in their learning experience as possible. Not only does choice increase their feeling of ownership of the task, but the students will naturally choose based on their ability levels.

A simplistic example: say you assign some sort of biography project, where the objective is working on research skills. The high-performing student might choose to challenge themselves with someone like Theodore Roosevelt, while the struggling student might choose the typical sports star or musician. It doesn’t matter; both learn the same research strategies.

Give project-based learning a try

Project-based learning, or PBL, focuses the students on real-world projects rather than just rote memorization or skills practice. The ideal projects are those that are slightly out of the educational reach of everyone in the class. The students work together methodically—sometimes in groups, sometimes individually—to accomplish the goal of the project. Background skills and knowledge are dispensed at the proper times throughout the unit, so no one has an advantage.

The differentiation is simple: PBL is a level playing field where everyone is working in unknown territory toward a common goal. There are some deliverables throughout the unit, but they are not dependent on background knowledge or skills. By working hard, struggling learners will have the same opportunity as high performers.