An Introduction to Differentiation

“Education is an art, but it is also a science.” Carol Ann Tomlinson

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Dr. Tomlinson speaking at the Roxbury Education Seminar

On Friday, I attended a workshop by Carol Ann Tomlinson, one of the foremost authorities on differentiated instruction. Dr. Tomlinson has written many books on the topic and currently serves as a faculty member of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. Her talk was an amazing experience so I thought I’d share some wisdom from one of education’s leading personalities.

What is differentiation? Differentiation is best explained as a way of thinking about teaching and learning and not a set of strategies. The hallmark of effective teaching with a differentiated mindset is thinking about teaching with the learning environment, curriculum, assessment, and instruction working together in harmony. “It means teachers proactively plan varied approaches to what students need to learn, how they will learn it, and/or how they will show what they have learned in order to increase the likelihood that each student will learn as much as he or she can, as efficiently as possible,” said Tomlinson. In other words, “differentiation is a sequence of common sense decisions made by teachers with a student-first orientation.”

Tomlinson shared a series of five steps teachers can use to bring differentiation into classrooms:

  1. Ensuring an environment that actively supports students in the work of learning (mindset, connections, community)
  2. Absolute clarity about a powerful learning destination (KUDs*, engagement, understanding)
  3. Persistently knowing where students are in relation to the destination all along the way (formative assessment for and as instruction)
  4. Adjusting teaching to make sure each student arrives at the destination and, when possible, moves beyond it (addressing readiness, interest, learning profile)
  5. Effective leadership and management of flexible classroom routines

“If this is all differentiation is, why isn’t everyone doing it?” wondered Tomlinson. Throughout the session, she returned to the theme of meeting the needs of all learners. To drive her point home, Tomlinson shared a Charlie Brown cartoon where Charlie and Lucy talk about their teacher–“My teacher thinks that teaching is just like bowling; you aim down the middle and try to hit as many as you can,” Charlie explained. Lucy replied, “She must not be a very good bowler.” It is obvious that Charlie’s teacher was only hoping to reach all students in the class and not taking a proactive approach to ensure that outcome actually happened.

Ensuring that the needs of all learners in a class are met is the fundamental point about differentiation. Taking a student-first approach to teaching is a way to get there. But, what does being student-first mean?  To help explain this principle, I think a slide I saw from a presentation by author Chris Lehman speaking at the University of Wisconsin can best illustrate this point:

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From Chris Lehman’s talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

While Dr. Tomlinson did tend to focus on the classrooms of elementary and middle school teachers, I found many aspects of her talk applicable to our high school classrooms. As teachers we know that every class is different and every student is different. Thinking about differentiation and a student-centered approach can remind us to pause, reflect, and check that everyone in our classes understands the material.

In my next post I’ll outline some ways teachers can begin implementing differentiation in high school classrooms.

*KUD is “know, understand, do”