“Oh maaaan!! An entire block of class time lost. Why do I always get students who just can’t read at grade level?” This is the mindset of a teacher who is reactively developing differentiation strategies in science learning.
There is another option!! 😃
It is waaay more fun to approach differentiating science instruction responsively by intentionally and proactively preparing lessons in ways that support all students in the classroom.
Deciding your mindset around differentiation in science teaching is an significant step in the amount of stress there is for you as you develop differentiation in science class.
The truth is that differentiation in lesson plans can require a greater investment of teacher prep time initially. However, the increased focus, motivation and engagement of students that comes from differentiation strategies in science learning is quite the payoff for the time the teacher has invested.
I realized that I would rather react responsively to the research that indicates that differentiation in instruction is always going to make learning most accessible to my students.
I am so grateful that I did. Although I was a long way from having differentiation mastered in the way that I wanted to, I was very blessed to see how differentiation in lesson plans brought my instruction (and students!) to life. 🥰
That moment was one of the steps that I took towards releasing my passion for teaching.
But don’t for a second think I am telling you that there was no work involved. 😉
There was. Lots.
Everything worth having in life involves effort.
But the increased joy of teaching, and the overall engagement and love of learning from my students, made applying differentiation strategies in science learning all worthwhile.
How to differentiate a science lesson
So, first . . . what is differentiation in teaching?
When considering how to differentiate a science lesson, Carol Tomlinson established the notion that we need to focus on four key pillars to creating differentiated instruction in classroom, including differentiation strategies in science learning.
- Content – this is when we adjust the challenge and complexity of the content.
- Process – using various media and approaches to teach the content such as videos, audio books, and hands on activities
- Product – we are providing multiple opportunities for our students to express their understanding
- Learning environment – a classroom environment includes everything from furniture, to community, to instructional methods and more. A flexible learning environment offers options in each of these areas.
Some argue that there are 5 rules of differentiation in instruction; the fifth rule or pillar being assessment.
I see assessment as an integral part of the other pillars for differentiation strategies in science learning, but let’s break it down a bit:
In order to have a starting point for your lessons, you will need to assess background knowledge. The likelihood is that you will already have assessed your students for reading ability as a part of reading instruction. This will inform your planning for how to choose resources for presentation.
I have never met teachers who intentionally assessed student learning styles formally, but we do learn student learning styles informally.
When I am working with a child who struggles with math concepts, for example, I am pulling out different tools. I try discussion conversation, drawings, ten frames, rekenreks, abacus, number lines, cuisenaire rods and more.
Meanwhile I am making a mental note for next time which tool worked best .
Of course, this is how your students demonstrate their learning. There is an opportunity for formal and informal assessment throughout this process.
By adjusting the classroom setup, you can learn a lot about how your students react and engage. For example, allowing them to stand or sit during carpet time can show you what works best for them.
So, how many differentiation rules are there?
Assessment is indeed a key part of differentiation in science and other subjects. It’s not a separate pillar, but it’s intertwined with the other four.
The application of differentiation in science.
Content – differentiation in science teaching complexity.:
Content differentiation is largely about providing levels content complexity.
Because I discuss different formats more under process, here I address content presented through the written word to help keep the focus on how to adjust complexity within a single type of instruction.
Let’s quickly touch on what not to do when addressing content complexity when focusing on differentiation strategies in science learning.
Do not assume that students who struggle with reading need to be limited to access to simpler content or information.
Most teachers these days realize that an ability, or inability, to read is not an indicator of a student’s ceiling level of intelligence. In other words, reading ability doesn’t dictate what a student can or cannot understand.
With that firmly focused at the front of the mind, let me share a story.
Effective differentiation in science
Before I became a classroom teacher I was trained in learning support, and I had worked in reading intervention. I was well aware of how very bright students sometimes struggle with reading.
When I was teaching science in September of my first year of teaching I called on a student who I knew was behind in reading.
Knowing that intellectually able students can struggle with reading, I should not have been so surprised when the word “echolocation” popped out of his mind. But I was.
Later on in that unit I was less surprised to see that he shared a lot of knowledge about the unit content, but all of the labels for the parts of an animal were written from right to left.
Why this story?
How frustrating would it have been for that student if I had provided him with access to very simplistic content because he couldn’t read more advanced content?
I would, in essence, have been speaking down to him.
Differentiation in primary school
When implementing differentiation strategies in science learning it is best to find resources at a variety of levels, which are presented in a variety of formats.
I had a ton of paper and hardcover content books available for free time reading and research strewn around the classroom. Nonfiction books tend to be more difficult to find at easier reading level with higher level vocabulary though.
I also provided bookmarked books in the free to teachers app, Epic Books. Within this app are digital books, audio books, and videos. This is an affordable and easy way to manage differentiation strategies in science learning for your students.
However, the opportunities don’t end there. Build students access and understanding to the content through:
- Vocabulary activities.
- Reading passages with comprehension questions.
- Reading a passage as a class (with reading volunteers from your ‘audience’), and then allow students to answer questions or answer them as a group. Your students will learn way better from their peers than from you lecturing.
- Discuss facts and opinions on the topic, and separate the two.
- Summarize the lesson on powerpoint, and provide fill in the blank notes.
Process – planning a variety of ways for students to receive content creates effective differentiation in science.
When you are differentiating processes for science. You are looking for a variety of ways in which students can access the Content.
Under content I focus solely how to differentiate complexity of the topic covered using written material. I primarily referred to written material to stress both the difference and the connections between content and process.
How to differentiate a science lesson for process involves supporting different learning styles your students will have for receptive processing of the material.
Differentiation in science education for processing, IMHO, is one of the fun parts of differentiating. This is where all the hands-on activities and student interaction occurs.
Will your students work independently, or will they work with a group? Is that choice up to them? Or you?
Are you able to provide movement activities? One activity that my students loved as a part of our study of animals, Salmon Migration Obstacle Course, came from our local science center.
Will you incorporate your art block? What about music?
Product – giving students a variety of options for examples of differentiation in science.
Project based learning is really ideal for differentiation of the classroom.
Choice boards provide multiple project options from which your students can choose to represent their understanding
Examples of differentiating the end product:
- Read and write learners could write a book they would publish.
- Visual learners may create a graphic organizer explaining their understanding or even draw pictures for a poster.
- Auditory learners may create and present an oral report.
- Kinesthetic students may choose to build a diorama illustrating the story.
- Maybe they build toys for force and motion
- Boom whackers are great for learning about sound
- Planting seeds and watching them germinate is so much fun when studying plants.
For each of these the students would need a rubric to establish the requirements of the project they choose.
Learning Environment – more than just differentiation in lesson plans
Clearly small groups, creative projects, active games, Jigsaw activities, and so many of the other methods you use for differentiating science instruction make keeping students in seats is impractical and even impossible.
As mentioned earlier, the learning environment is already largely impacted by the three other pillars of differentiation. But there is more.
Do you have standing desks? My students were allowed to stand at carpet when I read a book as long as they followed the expectations of that privilege.
Do you have some of the soft seats and other tools that allow students to use gross motor muscles even while sitting?
Is there a moment the students can take an active break mid class?
Can you make an activity into a game so students get a movement break?
Are quiet desks available for working at?
Do you allow students to use speech-to-text for their science writing?
Have you provided choice?
Some of these overlap with other pillars, but they do all impact a change in the science classroom.
Differentiation in science education in my class
I liked project based learning, but I tend to include the whole class into each part of it.
Content was differentiated in a number of ways, and there was a great variety of ways for students to access their learning.
We all worked on similar products simultaneously or together, but there was a variety of different ways to express understanding. I also included a variety of forms of assessment.
I believed that at the primary level it was important to teach children how to represent their understanding in a variety of ways so that as they got older, they understood what best suited their ability to express themselves.
Different classroom teachers have different purposes and preferences as far as product. It is important to give students opportunities to express their understanding in all ways, so that if they were given a choice, they knew their preference,
But also, that they are able to present their understanding of their learning in a specific way.
I felt that if I was only ever required to present their understanding the way they preferred to do it, they may not have the tools they needed for future projects in other classrooms.
When I started applying differentiation in classroom strategies
In truth I can say that from the moment I first started to teach Science, when I was teaching grade 9 students, I started to differentiate in Science.
Because I stepped in mid-term I was definitely working from a text.
I started by having my students take the questions from the text to work on together in small groups and study them.
This is not a huge thing, but it is how I could start. I took one step at a time.
I was keen, and they were surprised. The top student in the classroom struggled with this new fangled teaching.
Her whole life she had been the top of the class because her learning style was the only one taught.
I did not want her to struggle, but I was delighted to see other students open up and engage the content.
Differentiating science instruction
My passion ultimately paid off, and eventually I did apply differentiation strategies in science learning in a primary classroom. I will share more about what that looked like in my next blog post ‘3 Examples of Differentiation in Science.
The important thing is to start journeying this way. Take the reins of effective differentiation in science into your own hands voluntarily. This will provide you with a greater sense of joy, and probably control, with the planning.
But, also be gentle with yourself. Planning your differentiation strategies in science learning does take time, and I encourage you to take it at your own pace.
Share one of your differentiation strategies in science learning in the comments below, and support your colleagues.
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