Differentiation. It’s More Than Just a Buzzword.

Talk to experts in the field of gifted education and you’ll get a variety of takes on what “differentiation” is.  But what they’ll all agree on is that the focus of differentiation should be on altering the content of a lesson, the process by which students might access that content, and the product students might use to communicate their understandings of the content.

So how can a teacher differentiate CONTENT?  What does it look like when it is being done successfully?  The simplest, and perhaps most frequently used, DIFFERENTIATION of CONTENT  involves the provision of more challenging reading materials.  Quite simply put, the kids who can read harder books do!  Mrs. DuBois’ 3rd grade class, for example, is currently engaged in reading books by Andrew Clements.  Frindle, The Landry News, and Jake Drake are all age appropriate, highly motivating texts, yet their vocabulary, sentence structure, and complexity place them at Lexile levels ranging from 570 all the way to 950.   When preparing for a research project, Mrs. Hosier assigns topics to students based on how much background knowledge and vocabulary might be required to thoroughly comprehend a subject. DIFFERENTIATION of CONTENT can also take place in math.  I was recently in Mrs. Kelly’s 4th grade class  and noticed the students using a program called Mountain Math.  Mrs. Kelly has both the fourth and fifth grade sets of Mountain Math problems and uses them to differentiate the content she is providing to her math students.

Another fairly common way TJ teachers offer differentiation in their classrooms is through the DIFFERENTIATION of PROCESS.  Teachers routinely allow their most capable students opportunities for independent work, and the practice of flexible grouping is a staple in every teacher’s tool kit.  Last week, for example, Mrs. Craddock’s 4th graders had a lot on their plate: they had several multiplication problems to solve, two rounds of Xtra Math to complete, and a School Expansion Plan to craft (making use of math in a real world scenario).  The students worked at their own pace and transitioned from one activity to another as needed.  Meanwhile, across the hall in Ms. Allan’s room, complex multiplication has been the most recent area of study.  While some students were able to more readily tackle the conceptual understanding necessary to solve a problem like 368 x 24, when necessary, Ms. Allan used DIFFERENTIATION of PROCESS to ensure students came to the same final level of success.  For some, using partial products to solve the problem was necessary.  For others, the “box method” of multiplication was practiced in a small group.  In the end, all of the kids learned the same content, but how they did so varied.

DIFFERENTIATION of PRODUCT allows students to express their understanding using a variety of acceptable products OR to express their understanding using a product requiring a greater or lesser degree of complexity and thought, depending on the needs of the students.   Gifted kids thrive when given a choice and when they find themselves in control of their own learning.  This offers both!  A great example of DIFFERENTIATION of PRODUCT is currently happening in Ms. Gandy’s class.  They have been talking about resources in the imaginary utopia of Gandyland.  Gandyland is a pretty ideal place and the resources are plentiful, but the students have been forced to choose which resources to harvest.  As part of the process, the students must write letters to their leaders explaining their choices.   While some students will be writing two paragraphs detailing their selections, others in the class will write four, or even six, paragraphs, each with very specific requirements.

Bottom line — there is a lot of differentiation that takes place here at TJ; I’ve highlighted just a few small examples.  Much differentiation is invisible as our teachers strive to seamlessly incorporate the basic tenets of differentiation into their daily lessons.  As a parent, you see your child coming home excitedly telling you about the book they’re reading in class, but they’re unlikely to be all abuzz about the book’s Lexile level.  You might witness your child starting to understand complex multiplication, but you won’t see the process that got him there.  Your child might talk to you a mile a minute about Gandyland and the letter that was written to its leaders about resources, but the specific requirements for paragraphs will be left unmentioned.

In the end, the knowledge our teachers have about the abilities of their students, the effort they put in to planning effective instruction with varying degrees of support and opportunity for independent work, and the rich degree of choices offered to our students create situations in which our kids are excited, engaged and challenged!


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