Tales of : Why is Differentiation in the Classroom Important?

alt="teacher patiently helping young student who appears to be frustrated, and the caption reads, 'why is differentiation important?'

For some teachers, terror strikes their very heart when the topic of differentiation in the classroom comes up.

In “How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms”, Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson, a respected voice in differentiation, says it is, “shaking up what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making
sense of ideas, and expressing what they learned

To differentiate in classroom means you have thought about the individual learning styles of your students and how ready they are for the content before designing a lesson plan. 

I bet that still sounds pretty tough because that may sound like a whole lot of assessment is required.  

Which is true. 😊

But what kind of assessment is necessary?

When you sat down with a child, even for 10 seconds, and helped them to understand the next step, that was a formative assessment.  You now understand the student’s strengths and stretches better. 

A quick nudge, and they have the concept.

Remember the time it took 5 minutes with a student?  You probably had to try different ways to teach the concept, from drawing or rephrasing to referring back to earlier chats and breaking the concept into smaller pieces.

This student needs more than a nudge.

Both of these are formative assessments. 

From all of these interactions, some of which you will more formally labelled as “conferences”, you learn about your students’ strengths and stretches, and what engages them and gets them motivated to learn.  

Now that you have that information, you use it when you plan. 

That is differentiation.

alt="a female african american teacher and a young african american girl are working together at a computer with text overlay that reads, get to know your students, as a demonstration that formative assessment is an integral part of understanding differentiation in the classroom."
Assessment does not always have to be formal. Formative assessment can be any time you spend with a child. Conferencing, small group instruction and even whole class instruction can all contribute to your planning of differentiated lessons.

Why differentiated instruction is important.

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The story that inspired me to truly understand why differentiation is important was when I read  the true story, “The Spark, A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius”.  His parents were told he would never read, but they might be able to teach him to tie his shoes by 16 years of age. 

Apart from the stunning discovery of Jacob’s genius, I was also convicted by the elaboration on how the educational psychologist got Jacob’s mother, Kristine, to understand how hard sitting in boredom in school was for Jacob. 

Spoiler alert!!   Jacob accomplished far more than tying his shoelaces, and his work is considered to be groundbreaking in his field!

Jacob is an extreme case, and it would be difficult for any teacher to adequately differentiate for him, but his story definitely drove home the importance of differentiation for me.

Differentiation is not something we might do sometimes. 

Differentiation is something we must do consistently. 

alt="two hands together palms up, the left hand is holding a green apple, and the right hand is holding an orange. The text overlay reads, your students are as different as apples and oranges, the purpose of this post is to create a visual impression of why differentiated instruction is important."
Your students all have different gifts, needs and abilities. Differentiation is essential in making them feel safe, valued, included, and heard. It can also change their life.

The Payoff in Implementing Differentiation in the Classroom Strategies

Truthfully, as a teacher, one of my biggest motivators to remember why differentiated instruction is important  is that the time and effort put into differentiation pays off a thousandfold when it comes to classroom management.

All too often students will tell us they can’t do the work given to them, and they are “encouraged” with, “Just do your best.”  So they try their best, and they really can’t do it.

The next time, they look a little bit more upset, and the teacher is frustrated that the student is acting out.

Over time the student may continue to be “refusing” to do the work while communicating their inability to do the work. 

Finally one day they scrunch the work up, yell in frustration, and throw it in the garbage. This student’s growing frustration often does not happen within the course of a year, so the teacher that knew the sweet little kiddo is not the same teacher who experiences the struggling, moody behavioural problem.

However, in the same scenario if we listen to the child who says, “I can’t.” we are likely to learn more about the child and their needs. By listening and respecting, we build trust and relationships, and we diminish the likelihood of the student acting out.

In my years in learning support I got to witness students over the years, and I saw the behaviour change. I could only create so much change from outside the classroom, and this was a significant motivator in my choice to enter the classroom.

alt=" 9 multi=coloured tiles are haphazardly spread out on a wooden background to spell storytime. This image is a preface to the author's own story about the impact of a did not understand the importance of differentiation in the classroom."
Allow me to share my own story of a teacher who did not differentiate, and how it affected her classroom management and my sense of self.

A Little Bit About Me

Academically I am able, but I have ADHD. I was diagnosed as an adult when I was battling depression. Over time, I have developed strategies for many of the impacts of ADHD in my life, but sometimes making a phone call to book an appointment can take me weeks (yes weeks) because task initiation (ie. getting started) is an uphill battle for me.

I remember teachers standing over me yelling at me for not doing my homework.  There are many things that are wrong with that scenario, but I will address one issue.  

My grades were just fine. I wasn’t the top in the class, but I was close. Why was it important for me to do the homework? 
It was the teachers’ expectations that I do my homework that created their own perception that I was a classroom management problem. In their mind not doing my homework surely indicated I was being lazy and defiant.

Personal note: if you have this same challenge, and you battle anxiety too, I have learned that the best way to manage my anxiety was to force myself to get started. This has helped me in so many ways as I am not longer anxious about what I am leaving undone. However, because the appointments I need to make are all about self-care they are easier to defer without causing anxiety.

But, I digress. 😊

alt="blond woman with glasses in green shirt holding a pencil with mouth open yelling at a students with the question "Why isn't this done?" in a speech bubble , to emphasize the importance of knowing your students plays in differentiate in classroom."
Work with your students, talk to them, listen to them, know their interests. Build relationships with them. These things are essential to differentiate well.

What was really going on?

In truth, I took my homework home every single night.  I wanted to do it because I wanted so badly to please my teacher. However, I just didn’t. 

I was neither lazy, nor defiant, and I desperately wanted my teacher to love me, but I was perceived as a discipline problem.

Had my teacher made a connection between my grades and the incomplete homework she may have seen things differently.  

Or perhaps she could have had me give practice quizzes to another student who was doing their work well. 

Perhaps I could have been asked to alphabetize the words. Make up a sentence per word.

Practice writing the words in cursive. 

There were many options.  

But screaming at me was not necessary.

alt="young blond girl holding her knees, sitting on a concrete floor in front of a large window, with the text overlay, ' Differentiation is better than all of the alternatives to emphasize the impact of not differentiation in the classroom."
The teacher who yelled definitely did impact my sense of self, but she also motivated me to manage my own frustrations in the classroom. I became a better teacher because I did not want to be like her.

Differentiation in Classrooms Can Change Lives

A teacher once shared that they actually looked back through the academic record of a student in his school who was considered to be a significant behaviour problem. When looking through the records he could see that there had been a change in grade 2, and slowly the student’s behaviour started to escalate.  

Now, this student may have experienced a trauma or something that was entirely unrelated to academics, but it was very apparent something had changed.  

Was it a sudden drop in grades?  Maybe something had happened at home. 

Was it a slow inability to improve in a subject area that was eroding student confidence? Maybe the student needed more opportunities to practice, to use manipulatives, or to have videos included in the instruction.

Are we listening to our students and respecting them when they are vulnerable enough to say, “I can’t.”?

I am not blaming earlier teachers because I wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened. However, there is a progression of behaviour there. To me, it is a reminder that by learning how to teach well we truly can change lives.

What could have happened for this child had the child been taught instead of the curriculum? 

alt="young caucasian boy with brown eyes, clutching his hands to his mouth in stress, standing in front of a blackboard with the equation 1 + 1 = ? written on it. the text overlay reads, differentiation is an essential part of effective classroom management, to support teachers' comprehension of the truth that differentiation  in the classroom takes work but ultimately benefits everyone."
When we listen to our students and differentiate, we lower classroom behaviours caused by boredom, frustration and stress.

Differentiation in Classroom as a Strategy for Classroom Management

There are so many ways that putting time and effort into differentiation supports effective classroom management.

  1. Fewer behavioural problems caused by stress, frustration, and imploding self-confidence.
  2. Differentiation creates more inclusiveness because both high and low achieving students are able to participate successfully. This equal opportunity to participate changes the lens on ability to a degree, which leads to a better classroom community, which, in turn, leads to happy kids that feel safe.
  3. Successful participation leads to greater engagement making less off task behaviour.
  4. Differentiation is an important precursor to a growth mindset which, in turn, leads to student personal and academic growth.
  5. All of the above creates a happier teacher who reaps the rewards of an engaged community of learners. 

What does differentiation look like in the classroom?

My intent was to share 10 strategies for implementing differentiation in the classroom. However, I am running out of room.

Soooo . . . check out my next blog for those strategies. Subsequent blogs will be dedicated to differentiation in various content areas.

Meanwhile, “Why is Differentiation in the Classroom Important?”, because it is the most direct route to success for both you and the students.

I hope you join me again soon!! Until then, sign up for the newsletter, or download my checklist. Or both!

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