Differentiation acknowledges learners’ individual backgrounds, learning styles, and preferences to maximize their strengths and assist them in building skills in classrooms that allow for a great deal of flexibility. It can be used effectively to enhance learning for all students, not just advanced learners. This runs counter to many typical classrooms, in which every student is often expected to complete the same assignment, at the same time, in the same manner as everyone else.
One of my son’s former teachers is one example of a teacher who used differentiation effectively in her classroom. She was one of two teachers at that grade level that chose to have a group of children in the school’s gifted program cluster placed in her classroom. When she taught math, she used color coded packets to assign work to students based on their learning needs, then met with small groups to assist with their questions. She also used a great deal of choice in her long-term assignments such as book reports or science projects by listing a number of different options such as dioramas, posters, writing a song or a poem, doing a Power Point presentation, or even allowing the student to make a proposal of something different for her approval. My son and I remember her fondly as the best teacher he has ever had.
Differentiation for high ability students
Because high ability students may already know much of the material of the grade level curriculum based on their background knowledge, or need less repetition and practice to master new material, differentiated instruction is essential to keep them engaged in learning and challenging themselves. The psychologist Carol Dweck, for example, discusses the importance of cultivating a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset in students. In a growth mindset, students understand that their ability is not fixed, and that effort brings forth growth and learning. When gifted students are not properly challenged, they are at risk of falling into the trap of a fixed mindset, in which they believe success should come easily, and if it does not they are quick to feel frustrated and defeated. In a differentiated classroom, high ability students are able to extend and challenge themselves, and thus cultivate the important life skills that are part of having a growth mindset.
Differentiation techniques for students of high ability
High ability students need options that allow them to accelerate more quickly through material, learn related material that may be more challenging, or be allowed to extend their knowledge by doing further research or engaging in a creative task. My son’s third grade teacher, who I mentioned previously, sent her advanced readers with a parent volunteer to a weekly book club, in which the students discussed the book they were reading, completed discussion questions, and produced a final project in small groups that they presented to the class. The final projects were extension activities related to the book, but also involved science and the arts. They were able to complete two different books during the school year.
Benefits of differentiation for all students
Differentiation of instruction benefits all learners, because it treats them as individuals. Teachers are able to use their knowledge of student learning styles and preferences, strengths and weaknesses, as well as data gathered by pretests to tailor instruction to more effectively engage all students. For example, there may be less need for accommodations in a classroom where differentiation is used, because all students are not always expected to complete every assignment in exactly the same way. Thus, a student with a writing disability, for example, could elect to do an oral presentation instead of an essay if it is an option given among many for a project. This does not point out that student as “different,” as it might in a non-differentiated classroom where everyone else must do an essay and