A teacher in a differentiated classroom does not classify herself as someone who ‘already differentiates instruction.’ Rather that teacher is fully aware that every hour of teaching, every day in the classroom can reveal one more way to make the classroom a better match for its learners. – Carol Ann Tomlinson
Raise your hand if differentiation is on your school district’s list of initiatives? If your district is like many across the country, differentiation is something that is talked about frequently, and perhaps a struggle to implement.
I recently completed my second year as an instructional coach who specializes in differentiation, and in this time I’ve started to recognize trends as to why differentiation (which clearly helps students learn) is not fully embraced by educators (who strive to ensure students learn).
Differentiation Is Not the Goal
In short, there is a lot of confusion about what differentiation is, how you do it, and what it looks like.
Because I have the word differentiation in my title, teachers would often seek me out with a predetermined goal for our coaching cycle: “I want to differentiate instruction.”
Initially, I thought the fact that teachers came to me with a goal would make my job easier. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. In fact, when teachers came to me with this specific goal, our cycles were not as successful as cycles with other identified goals.
It took several stalled coaching cycles for me to recognize why this was happening. Once, I realized the reason, however, my coaching practice improved. The reason is: differentiation in it of itself is not the goal; rather differentiation is the result of the achievement of a number of smaller goals.
What do you mean?
Here’s an analogy. Many people set a goal to “lose weight.” As they make their action plan, they set a series of smaller, more manageable, and trackable goals: eat smaller meals more frequently, limit sugar intake, increase exercise, etc. Weight loss is a natural by-product of any of these smaller goals steps, assuming they are done with fidelity.
The Big Four
In Instructional Coaching, author Jim Knight identifies “The Big Four” areas in which teachers and coaches can partner to set goals. The big four are: classroom management, content, instruction, and formative assessment.
To differentiate effectively, and to effectively coach around differentiation, the natural starting point is to examine at each of these categories need to be considered for individual teachers.
Classroom Management: The learning environment is instrumental for effective differentiation. Teachers and students must have a mutual understanding of expectations and the climate must be evident of respect and rapport. If these elements are not evident, it is in the best interest of the coach, teacher, and students to start here if the teacher is willing.
Sometimes teachers are hesitant to form a classroom management goal as they feel pressured to implement initiatives, like differentiation, and feel they are wasting time and administrators won’t “see” differentiation in their classroom.
I strongly encourage coaches and teachers to not give into that perceived pressure and to engage in a classroom management cycle if needed. It is the coach’s responsibility to also work with administrators so they understand the multiple small steps/coaching cycles that may take place before differentiation is readily evident and effective.
|Example Classroom Managment Coaching Cycle Goal: I want to decrease the number of disruptions.
➢ Data Collected: Number of disruptions in a 40 minute period
➢ Strategy used: Break up whole group instruction with structured partner work (specifically a Kagan Strategy called Rally Coach)
➢ How did differentiation ensue?: Rally Coach allowed for students at different placed in their learning to partner and challenge each partner appropriately
As more and more school districts switch to standards-based grading which requires educators to study the language of the standards (CCSS, NGSS, C3) they are assessing, a common conclusion made is often times, there is quite a bit of leeway as far as specific content.
While this can, at times, still be a hard pill for some content experts to swallow (why isn’t studying the Civil War mandatory?) this change allows for teachers to differentiate for student’s interests within a unit of study which ultimately benefits their mastery of the skill being assessed.
|Example Content Coaching Cycle Goal I want students to see the relevancy of the content in a unit.
➢ Data Collected: Student engagement data
➢ Strategy used: Essential question(s)
➢ How did differentiation ensue?: Students self-identified areas of relevance to the content and then wrote pieces on different topics all related to the subject area, rather than in previous years where all students wrote on the same topic.
Oftentimes, instruction is an area that will require multiple goals and the use of more than one strategy for each goal (read more on why here). This is also an area that lends itself nicely to coaches and teachers partnering as co-teachers for part of the learning phase of the coaching cycle.
|Example Instruction Coaching Cycle Goal I want to e ngage more students in class discussions.
➢ Data Collected: Types, kind, level of questions asked and number of students volunteering to answer
➢ Strategy used: Questioning (using Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge) and options for multiple students to answer simultaneously (using various tech tools)
➢ How did differentiation ensue? Asking questions at various levels (more open than closed questions, more analysis questions than knowledge questions) increased the number of students contributing answers which allowed the teacher to assess students’ understanding of concepts more thoroughly and adjust pacing for those students (differentiate the process) accordingly.
Formative assessment is the heart of differentiation as it provides the evidence as to what students know, don’t know and when done correctly, formative assessment provides both the teacher and student with information as to what to do next.
The biggest hurdle with formative assessment is many times the word assessment is misinterpreted (you can read more about that here) and teachers and students miss opportunities to use valuable pieces of evidence.
|Example Formative Assessment Coaching Cycle Goal I want to involve students in the formative assessment process.
➢ Data Collected: Type of peer feedback offered
➢ Strategy used: Peer feedback and video analysis of feedback
➢ How did differentiation ensue? Student products were differentiated as peer feedback promoted student autonomy and allowed choice in showing mastery of a concept or skill.
In the end
Both instructional coaching and differentiation are complex topics and this blog post just scratches the surface. The more educators engage in dialogue about coaching and differentiation the more opportunity we all have to learn and perfect our craft. Please share your experiences with differentiation and working with/as an instructional coach by commenting below or connecting with me on Twitter @lisa_westman.
For more on differentiation, read these posts:
- Student-Driven Differentiation: Putting Student Voice Behind The Wheel
- Why Differentiation Misses the Mark for Gifted Students
- Differentiation: Attainable Or Somewhere Over The Rainbow?
- Differentiation is The Key to Assessment For Learning
- How Differentiation Fosters a Growth Mindset
- Yes, Differentiation is Hard. So, Let’s Get It Right.
For more on instructional coaching, read these posts: