Differentiation: a big word for ‘good learning’

Educators in Action

“Differentiation” or “differentiated instruction” — an approach to teaching that’s becoming the norm at Bellingham Public Schools — may at first seem abstract to those outside the education field. But it’s just a big word for a simple concept. Teachers apply it every day at their jobs as they strive to reach every student in their classrooms.

Differentiation means students identified as highly capable aren’t bored but are continually challenged in the classroom. It means students with learning disabilities are taking equally large strides in their learning. Differentiation means students of all abilities working together so everyone gains a deeper understanding of the day’s lesson.

Brian Pahl, who until recently taught fourth graders at Sunnyland Elementary School, said differentiation is “good learning culture.”

“I started from the premise that I wanted school to be a place kids were excited to be every day” — whether they were at, above or below grade level, Pahl said.

“Every kid in my classroom should learn.”

Walk into an elementary school these days, and you are less likely than in decades past to find children at an array of desks and under teacher’s orders to sit still. Students are free to move around and collaborate.

“I experimented a lot” with classroom layout, Pahl said. “Flexibility is a huge part of it.” Pahl went from arranging desks to face the front of the classroom, “old school” style; to putting desks together in pods so students could share ideas; to providing floor space, standing desks and yoga balls for students who focus better if they aren’t required to stay seated.

A day in the classroom

On a recent day at Lowell Elementary School, teacher Sarah Snyder was giving her first graders a math lesson. Some students were completing math tasks at tables. Others were on the floor, rolling dice and connecting small blocks to solve addition problems similar to those found on the worksheets.

Snyder moved from one part of the room to another to work with individual students or small groups. The students, just 6 or 7 years old, weren’t in need of constant supervision but were motivated to get their work done, talking together to help each other finish the assignment.


What is differentiation?

When boiled down, the idea of differentiation really isn’t abstract or obscure. As described in “The Differentiated Classroom,” By Carol Ann Tomlinson, it is “an idea as old as effective teaching.”

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) says “Differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching in which educators actively plan for students’ differences so that all students can best learn. In a differentiated classroom, teachers divide their time, resources, and efforts to effectively teach students who have various backgrounds, readiness and skill levels, and interests.”

The graphic linked here illustrates what differentiation is and isn’t.


For differentiation to work well, teachers must get to know their students, and students must take ownership of their learning and trust each other and their teacher to be looking out for their individual needs.

“I spend a great deal of time early in the year building community,” said Sharie Burdick, a first-grade teacher at Silver Beach Elementary School. “I try to lay the foundation for kids to respect and appreciate each other. It’s OK for something to be easy for someone and hard for someone else. We are a classroom of caring, encouraging, and responsible individuals all in the business of learning.”

“We have to teach students how to have conversations and think about their work,” Pahl said. “As a teacher you have to create an environment where (seeking help) is safe and that’s expected. … It takes a lot of time to build that. It doesn’t just happen.”

Middle school teachers in Bellingham also are differentiating their instruction. Classroom environment is still important at this level, but the focus is on giving students choices: What are the different ways we can present the material? What are the different work products we can ask of them?

On the same day Snyder was teaching a math lesson at Lowell, Michael Finley was teaching sixth graders at Fairhaven Middle School how to write scientific conclusions. Students were seated at tables, not individual desks, so they could help each other or share ideas.

Finley’s students were following directions on one of two worksheets, one designed to teach at the sixth-grade level, and one that was above grade level. Once students were finished, they could do one of two other assignments: Create a poster related to the scientific topic of the day — elastic forces — or complete a writing assignment on Newton’s first and second laws.

“Writing takes different lengths of time for different students,” Finley said. “So I have learning extensions for those who finish earlier.”

“I try to make sure everyone is doing something and making progress,” he said.

High school teachers are applying the concepts of differentiation also, said Dawn Christiana, a director of teaching and learning at the schools. She said more work needs to be done to apply differentiated instruction at all levels to best meet the needs of students.

“Differentiation is a districtwide goal over the next few years,” Christiana said.

A note on the importance of technology

Teachers are increasingly turning to computers to help differentiate their instruction.

“We are so fortunate voters passed the tech levy” (with 73 percent in favor, in February 2016), said Pahl, the former fourth-grade teacher who now supports all schools with safe and effective use of instructional technology.

“Technology affords us the ability to give kids those kinds of experiences we can’t do with traditional instruction.”

Teachers can develop lessons on computers for the rest of the class while meeting directly with a small group. That way, all students are engaged. Students also have more ways to do their work — some may do better listening to an audio book rather than reading, and some may show better results by making a podcast or video rather than writing a report.

Educators have a better understanding than they did a generation or two ago about how students learn. And the world schools are preparing them for has changed.

“We want to teach them to think critically and work collaboratively to solve important problems,” Pahl said. Differentiated instruction coupled with technology makes that possible. “Not only will it be fun, but we will prepare them for the world they will enter when they leave us.”


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