The Differentiated Classroom

Responding to the Needs of All Learners


by Carol Ann Tomlinson


Copyright 1999 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission from ASCD.



Foreword

She waited until they were all in their usual places, and then she asked, "Did I choose you, or did you choose me?" And the Souls answered, "Yes!"

—E.L. Konigsburg, The View from Saturday

I enjoyed writing this book because it reminded me that teaching is, in part, a history. I enjoyed writing this book because it reminded me of my history as a teacher. Writing this book connected me with teachers of another century in one-room schoolhouses on the Great Plains of the United States. These teachers accepted all comers and said by their actions, "I'm grateful for every one of you who came to learn. Different as you are, we can make this work!"

This book also transported me back to late nights at the home of my first real teaching partner nearly three decades ago. She and I tried to make sense of multitask classrooms, which seemed the obvious need of our very diverse students. After three decades of a remarkable friendship, Doris Standridge still works with me to make sense of teaching—and of life. In this book, she also created all the graphics.

Writing this book led me to recall the names and faces of students I taught and who unfailingly taught me. They were high schoolers, preschoolers, and middle schoolers. They were so alike, yet so different. They needed me to be many things to them, not just one person, and they taught me how to achieve that.

This book reminded me of colleagues in Fauquier County, Va. They worked hard, took professional risks, thought "outside the box," found joy in classrooms, and created joy there, too. It was a classy school district, and it was a great training ground for teaching because there was encouragement to be an innovator.

Writing this book helped me retrace my steps on the journey of my "second life" at the University of Virginia and in schools around the country. I now work with teachers in all the different kinds of places that make up the United States and with all the sorts of students who are its future. At the University of Virginia, my colleagues push my thinking and model excellence. My students often ask, "Why?" Then generally they follow with, "Why not?" Students still are my teachers.

Around the country, other teachers' questions create thick, patterned tapestries of understanding and uncertainty, which generally is the more valuable for growth. It is a risk to name any more names. People in so many places have contributed to what I know to write here. In a few places, however, I have lingered longer, and in those places, conversations have been especially powerful.

I am grateful to Mindy Passe, Lynn Howard, the Project START teachers, and many others in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools; to Susan Allan and the Grosse Pointe (Mich.) teachers; to Suette King and her colleagues in the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Schools; to Terry Greenlund, Sandra Page, and a large group of thoughtful teachers in the Chapel Hill-Carboro (N.C.) Schools; to Marian Gillewicz and the teachers of Yellowknife (NWT, Canada); to Pam Ungar and the principals and teachers in the Augusta County Schools (Va.); to Peg Davis and her study groups in the Madison County Schools (Va.); and to Mary Ellen Shaw, Mary Peterson, and the primary teachers at Mount Daniel Elementary School in Falls Church (Va.). I've also been enriched by interactions with principals and teachers at three research sites on differentiated instruction, where my colleagues and I have worked over the past three years: Sudbrook Middle School in the Baltimore County (Md.) Schools, Madison Middle School in the Roanoke City (Va.) Schools, and McLean Middle School in the Fort Worth (Tex.) Schools. Ideas from many folks in all these places greatly shape the pages that follow.

I have directly borrowed (I hope they don't think stolen!) lesson plans and instructional approaches from Nikki Kenney (San Antonio, Tex.); Judy Larrick (Albemarle County, Va.); Taren Basenight, Annie Joines, Jean Parrish, Nancy Brickman, and Holly Speight (Chapel Hill, N.C.); Caroline Cunningham (Peabody School, Charlottesville, Va.); Chris Stevenson (University of Vermont); and Mary Hooper and Marie deLuca (Grosse Pointe, Mich.).

I also have come to put these ideas on paper because of the partnership and support of numerous staff members at ASCD. I am particularly indebted to Leslie Kiernan, who has an unfailing heart and eye for magical classrooms and who loses sleep over any sliver of work at less than the highest quality she can produce. I also am indebted to John O'Neil, who embodies the best in teaching as an editor. He has always appreciatively accepted me where I am and asked gentle but probing questions to push me on.

Teachers often say to me, "How can I find time to differentiate instruction? I'm so busy already!" Writing this book has reinforced the only answer I know to give: "Build a career. Plan to be better tomorrow than today, but don't ever plan to be finished."

Writing this book reminded me that teaching is about learning, and that learning is about becoming, and that making a history is about making a life. This book is about writing your own history as a teacher—one day at a time, one increment of growth at a time, one collegial partnership at a time.

—Carol Ann Tomlinson




1. What Is a Differentiated Classroom?

A different way to learn is what the kids are calling for . . . . All of them are talking about how our one-size-fits-all delivery system—which mandates that everyone learn the same thing at the same time, no matter what their individual needs—has failed them.

—Seymour Sarason, The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform

In the United States more than a century ago, the teacher in a one-room prairie schoolhouse faced a challenging task. She had to divide her time and energy between teaching young children who had never held a book and could not read or write and teaching older, more advanced students with little interest in what the young ones were doing. Today's teachers still contend with the essential challenge of the one-room schoolhouse: how to reach out effectively to students who span the spectrum of learning readiness, personal interests, culturally shaped ways of seeing and speaking of the world, and experiences in that world.

Though today's teachers generally work with single classes with students of nearly the same age, these children have an array of needs as great as those among the children of the one-room school. Thus, a teacher's question remains much the same as it was 100 years ago: How do I divide time, resources, and myself so that I am an effective catalyst for maximizing talent in all my students? Consider how these teachers answer that question.

All of these teachers are differentiating instruction. Perhaps they practiced differentiating instruction before it had a name, or without even knowing its name. They are teachers who strive to do whatever it takes to ensure that struggling and advanced learners, students with varied cultural heritages, and children with different background experiences all grow as much as they possibly can each day, each week, and throughout the year.

Hallmarks of Differentiated Classrooms

In differentiated classrooms, teachers begin where students are, not the front of a curriculum guide. They accept and build upon the premise that learners differ in important ways. Thus, they also accept and act on the premise that teachers must be ready to engage students in instruction through different learning modalities, by appealing to differing interests, and by using varied rates of instruction along with varied degrees of complexity. In differentiated classrooms, teachers ensure that a student competes against himself as he grows and develops more than he competes against other students.

In differentiated classrooms, teachers provide specific ways for each individual to learn as deeply as possible and as quickly as possible, without assuming one student's road map for learning is identical to anyone else's. These teachers believe that students should be held to high standards. They work diligently to ensure that struggling, advanced, and in-between students think and work harder than they meant to; achieve more than they thought they could; and come to believe that learning involves effort, risk, and personal triumph. These teachers also work to ensure that each student consistently experiences the reality that success is likely to follow hard work.

Teachers in differentiated classes use time flexibly, call upon a range of instructional strategies, and become partners with their students to see that both what is learned and the learning environment are shaped to the learner. They do not force-fit learners into a standard mold. You might say these teachers are students of their students. They are diagnosticians, prescribing the best possible instruction for their students. These teachers also are artists who use the tools of their craft to address students' needs. They do not reach for standardized, mass-produced instruction assumed to be a good fit for all students because they recognize that students are individuals.

Teachers in differentiated classrooms begin with a clear and solid sense of what constitutes powerful curriculum and engaging instruction. Then they ask what it will take to modify that instruction so that each learner comes away with understandings and skills that offer guidance to the next phase of learning. Essentially, teachers in differentiated classrooms accept, embrace, and plan for the fact that learners bring many commonalities to school, but that learners also bring the essential differences that make them individuals. Teachers can allow for this reality in many ways to make classrooms a good fit for each individual.

Although differentiated classrooms embody common sense, they still can be difficult to achieve. In part, it is difficult to achieve a differentiated classroom because we see few examples of them. The examples that are out there, however, offer a productive way to start exploring differentiated instruction.

Portraits from Schools

Teachers work daily to find ways to reach out to individual learners at their varied points of readiness, interest, and learning preference. There is no one "right way" to create an effectively differentiated classroom; teachers craft responsive learning places in ways that are a good match for their teaching styles, as well as for learners' needs. Following are samples from classrooms in which teachers differentiate instruction. Some are lifted directly from an observation in a classroom. Some are composites of several classrooms, or extensions of conversations with teachers. All are intended to help in forming images of what it looks like and feels like in a differentiated classroom.

Snapshots from Two Primary Classrooms

For a part of each day in Mrs. Jasper's 1st grade class, students rotate among learning centers. Mrs. Jasper has worked hard for several years to provide a variety of learning centers related to several subject areas. All students go to all learning centers because Mrs. Jasper says they feel it's unfair if they don't all do the same thing. Students enjoy the movement and the independence the learning centers provide.

Many times, Isabel breezes through the center work. Just as frequently, Jamie is confused about how to do the work. Mrs. Jasper tries to help Jamie as often as she can, but she doesn't worry so much about Isabel because her skills are well beyond those expected of a 1st grader.

Today, all students in Mrs. Jasper's class will work in a learning center on compound words. From a list of 10 compound words, they will select and illustrate 5. Later, Mrs. Jasper will ask for volunteers to show their illustrations. She will do this until the students share illustrations for all 10 words.

Down the hall, Ms. Cunningham also uses learning centers in her 1st grade classroom. She, too, has invested considerable time in developing interesting centers on a variety of subjects. Ms. Cunningham's centers, however, draw upon some of the principles of differentiated classrooms. Sometimes all students work in a particular learning center if it introduces an idea or skill new to everyone. More often, Ms. Cunningham assigns students to a specific learning center, or to a particular task at a certain learning center, based on her continually developing sense of their individual readiness.

Today, her students also will work at a learning center on compound words. Students' names are listed at the center; one of four colors is beside each name. Each student works with the folder that matches the color beside his or her name. For example, Sam has the color red next to his name. Using the materials in the red folder, Sam must decide the correct order of pairs of words to make familiar compound words. He also will make a poster that illustrates each simple word and the new compound word they form. Using materials in the blue folder, Jenna will look around the classroom and in books to find examples of compound words. She will write them out and illustrate them in a booklet. Using materials in the purple folder, Tjuana will write a poem or a story that uses compound words she generates and that make the story or poem interesting. She then can illustrate the compound words to make the story or poem interesting to look at as well as to read. In the green folder, Dillon will find a story the teacher has written. It contains correct and incorrect compound words. Dillon will be a word detective, looking for "villains" and "good guys" among the compound words. He will create a chart to list the good guys (correct compound words) and the villains (incorrect compound words) in the story. He will illustrate the good guys and list the villains as they are in the story, and then write them correctly.

Tomorrow during circle time, all students may share what they did with their compound words. As students listen, they are encouraged to say the thing they like best about each presenter's work. Ms. Cunningham also will call on a few students who may be reticent to volunteer, asking them if they'd be willing to share what they did at the center.

Examples from Two Elementary Classrooms

In 5th grade, students at Sullins Elementary work with the concept of "famous people" to make connections between social studies and language arts. All students are expected to hone and apply research skills, to write effectively, and to share with an audience what they have learned as a result of the unit.

Mr. Elliott asks all his students to select and read a biography of a famous person from the literature or history they have studied. Students then use encyclopedias and the Internet to find out more about the person they have chosen. Each student writes a report about a famous person, describing the person's culture, childhood, education, challenges, and contributions to the world. Students are encouraged to use both original and "found" illustrations in their reports. Mr. Elliott gives a rubric to the whole class to coach students in areas such as use of research resources, organization, and quality of language.

In her 5th grade class, Mrs. May gives her students interest inventories to help them find areas where they may have a special talent or fascination, such as sports, art, medicine, the outdoors, writing, or helping others. Ultimately, each student selects an area of special interest or curiosity. The students and teacher talk about the fact that in all areas of human endeavor, famous people have shaped our understanding and practice of the field. She reads them a biographical sketch of a statesman, a musician, and an astronaut. Together, students and teacher describe principles about these famous people.

For example, famous people often are creative, they take risks to make advances in their fields, they frequently are rejected before they are admired, they sometimes fail, they sometimes succeed, and they are persistent. Students test the principles as they discuss historic figures, authors, and people in the news today. In the end, students conclude that people can be famous "for the right reasons" or "for the wrong reasons." They decide to research people who become famous by having a positive impact on the world.

The school media specialist helps each student to generate lists of "positive" famous people in that student's particular categories of interest. She also helps them learn how to locate a variety of resources that can help them research famous individuals. This includes brainstorming possible interview sources. She talks with them about the importance of selecting research materials they can read and understand clearly. She also offers to help them look for alternatives if they find materials that seem too easy or too hard for them.

Mrs. May and her students talk about how to take notes and try various ways to take notes during their research. They also consider different methods of organizing their information, such as webs, outlines, storyboards, and matrices. They talk about all the ways they can express their understandings: through essays, historical fiction, monologues, poems, caricatures, or character sketches. Mrs. May provides students with a rubric that guides them on the content, research, planning, and outcome of their work. Students also work with Mrs. May individually to set their own goals for understandings, working processes, and final products.

As the assignment continues, Mrs. May works with individuals and small groups to assess their understanding and progress and to coach them for quality. Students also assess each other's work according to the rubrics and individual goals. They ensure that each report shows someone who has made a "positive" contribution to the world. In the end, the whole class completes a mural in the cafeteria that lists the principles of fame in the shape of puzzle pieces. On each puzzle piece, students write or illustrate examples of the principle from their famous person's life. They then add ways in which they believe the principles are or will be important in their own lives. Students also share their final products with an adult who knows something about, or is interested in learning about, the person they researched.

Comparisons from the Middle Grades

In Mr. Cornell's science class, students work in a specific cycle: read the text chapter, answer questions at the end of the chapter, discuss what they have read, complete a lab, and take a quiz. Students do the labs and complete their reports in groups of four. Sometimes Mr. Cornell assigns students to a lab group as a way of managing behavior problems. Often, students select their own lab groups. They read the text and answer the questions individually. Mr. Cornell typically conducts two or three whole-class discussions during a chapter. All students enter the science fair in the spring, with a project based on a topic studied in the fall or winter.

Mrs. Santos often assigns students in her science class to reading squads when they work with text materials. At this stage, group assignments usually are made so students of similar reading levels work together. She varies graphic organizers and learning log prompts according to the amount of structure and concreteness the various groups need to grasp essential understandings from the chapter. She also makes it possible for students to read aloud in their groups or to read silently. Then they complete organizers and prompts together. As students read, Mrs. Santos moves among groups. Sometimes she reads key passages to them, sometimes she asks them to read to her, but she always probes for deeper understanding and helps to clarify their thinking.

Sometimes Mrs. Santos asks students to complete labs, watch videos, or work with supplementary materials before they read the chapter so they have a clear sense of guiding principles before they work with the text. Sometimes they read the text for awhile, do a lab, and go back to the text. Sometimes labs and supplementary materials follow text exploration. Frequently, she will have two versions of a lab going simultaneously: one for students who need concrete experiences to understand essential principles and one for students who already grasp the important principles and can deal with them in complex and uncertain contexts.

Mrs. Santos gives quizzes and diagnostic learning log entries several times in the course of a unit. Thus, she is aware of which students need additional instruction with key understandings and skills and which students need more advanced applications early in the unit. Students have several choices for a major science project:

In Mr. O'Reilly's 8th grade English class, students read the same novels and have whole-class discussions on them. Students complete journal entries on their readings.

In Mrs. Wilkerson's 8th grade English class, students often read novels around a common theme, such as courage or conflict resolution. Students select from a group of four or five novels on the same concept, and Mrs. Wilkerson provides classroom sets of the books. Mrs. Wilkerson also makes sure the novels span a considerable reading range and tap into several interests.

Mrs. Wilkerson's 8th graders meet frequently in literature circles with students reading the same novel. There they discuss what they are reading. Although the various literature circles reflect different degrees of reading proficiency, students in each group take turns serving in one of five leadership roles: discussion director, graphic illustrator, historical investigator, literary luminary, and vocabulary enricher. There are printed guides for each role to help students fulfill them well. Mrs. Wilkerson also varies journal prompts, sometimes assigning different prompts to different students. Often, she encourages students to select a prompt that interests them. There also are many opportunities for whole-class discussion on the theme that all the novels share, allowing all students to contribute to an understanding of how the theme "plays out" in the book they are reading and in life.

Samples from High School

In Spanish I, Mrs. Horton's students complete the same language pattern drills, work on the same oral exercises, read the same passages, and take the same quizzes.

In French I, Mr. Adams's students often work with written drills at differing levels of complexity and with different amounts of teacher support. Their oral exercises focus on the same basic structures, but completion requires different levels of sophistication with the language. Sometimes students can "opt out" of review sessions to create their own French dialogue or to read a French language magazine. Students often work in teacher- assigned, mixed-readiness pairs to prepare for what the teacher calls "fundamentals quizzes." Students who wish to do so can, from time to time, select a partner to prepare for a "challenge quiz." Success on a challenge quiz nets students "homework passes" they can use to be excused from homework assignments when their work on the quiz indicates they have mastered the homework material.

In Mr. Matheson's Algebra II class, students typically complete the same homework, work independently on in-class drills, and take the same tests.

In her Algebra II class, Mrs. Wang helps students identify key concepts and skills in a given chapter. After various chapter assessments, students are encouraged to look at their own assessment results and select homework assignments and in-class miniworkshops that will help them clarify areas of confusion. She encourages students to decide whether they work most effectively alone or with a partner and to make that choice when there are opportunities to do so. Toward the end of a chapter, Mrs. Wang also gives students individual "challenge problems," which they can tackle alone or with a classmate. She designs the problems to be a mental reach. On end-of-chapter tests, students find challenge problems similar but not identical to the ones Mrs. Wang gave them earlier. There may be five or six different challenge problems distributed among the tests of 30 students.

In physical education, Mrs. Bowen's students usually all work with the same exercises and basketball drills. Mr. Wharton helps his students diagnose their starting points with various exercises and basketball skills, set challenging goals for personal improvement, and chart their personal progress. He particularly stresses growth in two areas: a student's best and weakest area.

In U.S. History, Miss Roberson and her students cover the information in the text sequentially. She lectures to supplement information in the text. Miss Roberson includes a special emphasis on women's history and African American history during the months designated by the school for those emphases.

Mrs. Washington's U.S. History students look for key concepts and generalizations that recur in each period of history they study. They also look for concepts and generalizations unique to each period. They study various points of view and the experiences shared by various cultural, economic, and gender groups. They use a variety of text, video, and taped materials of varying degrees of difficulty. Mrs. Washington sometimes lectures, but she always uses overhead transparencies that provide key points of her lecture to help visual learners. She also stops throughout the lecture to encourage students to talk about key ideas in the lecture and to ensure their grasp of those ideas. Essays and projects often ask students to take their understanding of a period in U.S. history and contrast it with what was going on in another culture and in another geographical area during the same period. Project assignments always offer several options for how a student can express his or her understanding. At the end of each quarter, students have the option of taking their whole grade from an exam, or they can take half of it from an alternative assessment proposed by the teacher and modified by the student with teacher guidance and approval.


* * * * *

Differentiated classrooms feel right to students who learn in different ways and at different rates and who bring to school different talents and interests. More significantly, such classrooms work better for a full range of students than do one-size-fits-all settings. Teachers in differentiated classrooms are more in touch with their students and approach teaching more as an art than as a mechanical exercise.

Developing classrooms that actively attend to both student similarities and student differences is anything but simple. The chapters that follow describe classrooms with differentiated, or responsive, instruction, and they offer guidance on how you can, over time, make such classrooms a reality for your class or school.



Copyright © 1999 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. All rights reserved.



3. Rethinking How We Do School—and for Whom

The aim is clear. Each child—each of the young—should be able to advance to full capacity in accordance with general and special ability and aptitude.

Paul Brandwein, Memorandum: On Renewing Schooling and Education

Some may think that differentiating instruction is a recently hatched idea from wherever it is that educational "innovations" begin. Actually, it is a natural outgrowth of a burgeoning understanding of the ways children learn. A brief background on the evolution of teaching and learning over recent decades is useful for understanding what we now call "differentiating instruction."

Even Education Changes

Think back 75 or 100 years ago. Now, fast-forward to today. In many ways, those years reflect more change for humans than all the years before in recorded history. Think about farming 100 years ago—and today. Think about the practice of medicine 100 years ago—and today. Imagine transportation 100 years ago—and today. Consider the 20th century's changes in engineering, clothing, and communication. The transformation is dizzying! While most of us succumb to occasional nostalgia for "the good old days," few of us would opt for yesterday's physicians, communication systems, or fashion.

Although we think of school as a static enterprise, the field of education has grown and changed, too. Today we understand many things about teaching and learning that we had no way of knowing a century, or even a few decades, ago. Some of these insights stem from psychology and the science of the brain. Others come from continuing observation in classrooms. Whatever their genesis, these educational changes are every bit as revolutionary as moving from the pencil to the typewriter to the personal computer.

New Ways of Thinking About School

We could fill volumes with the expanding understandings of how children learn. We could fill other volumes with the implications of this knowledge for teachers. That is not the goal of this book, but it is important to sketch out a few recent, pivotal insights about teaching and learning.

Differentiated instruction is first and foremost good instruction. Many current understandings about learning provide strong support for classrooms that recognize, honor, and cultivate individuality. Following are three principles of effective teaching and learning that educators have not always known or clearly supported.

Intelligence Is Variable

We can draw at least three important conclusions from the study of intelligence over the past half century. First, intelligence is multifaceted, not a single thing. Howard Gardner (1991, 1993, 1997) suggests that humans have eight intelligences: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical-rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Robert Sternberg (1985, 1988, 1997) suggests three kinds of intelligences: analytical, practical, and creative. Before them, other researchers, such as Thorndike, Thurstone, and Guilford (Horowitz & O'Brien, 1985), identified varied types of intelligence. While the names of intelligences vary, educators, psychologists, and researchers have drawn two significant, consistent conclusions:

A second important conclusion about intelligence is that it is fluid, not fixed. In other words, providing children with rich learning experiences can amplify their intelligence, and denying them such richness of experience can diminish their intelligence (Caine & Caine, 1991).

A third understanding stems from the burgeoning field of brain research (Caine & Caine, 1991; Sylwester, 1995). Neurons grow and develop when they are used actively; they atrophy when they are not used. Vigorous learning changes the physiology of the brain.

These theories suggest several clear implications for educators. For example, teachers must be effective in developing many types of intelligence, not just one. Also, students who come to school lacking rich learning experiences can make up lost ground if they find rich experiences in their classrooms. All students must continue vigorous, new learning, or they risk losing brain power.

The Brain Hungers for Meaning

Thanks to progress with imaging technology in the field of medicine, we can now look inside the human brain and see how it functions. Such observations have rapidly expanded the understanding of teaching and learning. We now know important details about what works best for the brain in learning (Caine & Caine, 1991, 1994, 1997; Jensen, 1998; Kalbfleisch, 1997; Sylwester, 1995).

The brain seeks meaningful patterns and resists meaninglessness. Though the brain retains isolated or disparate bits of information, it is much more efficient at retaining information that is "chunked." Chunked information is organized around categories and ideas that increase the information's meaningfulness. The brain constantly seeks to connect parts to wholes, and individuals learn by connecting something new to something they already understand.

The brain learns best when it can come to understand by making its own sense out of information rather than when information is imposed on it. The brain doesn't respond much to things that carry only a surface meaning. It responds far more effectively and efficiently to something that carries deep and personal meaning, something that is life shaping, relevant, important, or taps into emotions.

These and many other understandings tell us much about the individuality of learners and about the nature of effective curriculum and instruction. Brain research tells us that each learner's brain is unique, and educators must provide many opportunities for varied learners to make sense of ideas and information. The research tells us that when we set out to have students connect the novel to the familiar, what is novel to one child already may be familiar to another and vice versa.

Brain research tells us that curriculum must cultivate meaning making. It should be organized around categories, concepts, and governing principles. A meaningful curriculum is characterized by high interest and high relevance, and it taps into learners' feelings and experiences. If we want students to retain, understand, and use ideas, information, and skills, we must give them ample opportunity to make sense of, or "own," them through involvement in complex learning situations.

Brain research also makes clear that if learning is a process of connecting the unfamiliar to the familiar, teachers must create abundant opportunities for students to link the new with the old. This is a three-part task. First, teachers must identify the essential concepts, principles, and skills of their subjects. Then they must become experts about their students' learning needs. Then they must use this information about learning needs to provide differentiated opportunities for students to construct understanding by connecting what they know with the essentials they are trying to learn.

Humans Learn Best with Moderate Challenge

Through increased understanding of both psychology and the brain, we now know that individuals learn best when they are in a context that provides a moderate challenge (Bess, 1997; Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993; Howard, 1994; Jensen, 1998; Vygotsky, 1978, 1986). That is, when a task is far too difficult for a learner, the learner feels threatened and "downshifts" into a self-protection mode. A threatened learner will not persist with thinking or problem solving. On the other hand, a simple task also suppresses a learner's thinking and problem solving. He or she coasts into a relaxation mode.

A task is appropriately challenging when it asks learners to risk a leap into the unknown, but they know enough to get started and have additional support for reaching a new level of understanding. Put another way, students who consistently fail lose their motivation to learn. Students who succeed too easily also lose their motivation to learn. For learning to continue, students must believe that hard work is required, but the hard work often pays off with success. Teachers also must remember that what is moderately challenging today won't offer the same challenge tomorrow. Challenges must grow as students grow in their learning.

Again, this new knowledge offers important guidance for educators. What is moderately challenging and motivating for one learner may offer far too little challenge (and therefore little motivation) for a classmate. The same task just may be too stressful for yet another classmate. Learning tasks must be adjusted to each student's appropriate learning zone. Further, tasks must escalate in complexity and challenge for students to learn continually.

Thinking About the Students We Teach

Over the past half century or more, the student population has changed dramatically. Today, all children are expected to come to school, whatever their gender, socioeconomic status, or physical or mental challenge. Yet at one time, not all children came to public school. Children with physical disabilities and severe learning problems stayed home. Children from poor homes, including new immigrants, worked in factories or at other jobs to help support the family. Farm children worked the fields and didn't come to school, except in seasons when crops didn't require planting or harvesting. Girls were often excluded from advanced education because of the perception that they would marry, raise children, and run a household, roles not believed to require much education. Children of the very rich often had tutors or went to exclusive boarding schools.

Not too long ago, most children who came to school had two parents in the home. At least one of those parents usually was at home when the child left for school and when the child returned. We now teach many children whose homes have only one parent. Most children no longer have a parent at home at both ends of the school day. While that fact alone is not necessarily negative, it complicates children's lives. Sometimes children are frightened by this isolation. Many lack a steady hand to monitor school progress or homework—or even to listen to the events of a school day.

We teach children who, for better or worse (and probably both), are offspring of the electronic era. Their world is both larger and smaller. They know more things, but they understand less of what they know. They are accustomed to quick and ready entertainment, and yet their imaginations are less active. They have to cope with realities and problems that once would have been unknown to children, and yet many have markedly smaller support systems for wisely navigating these problems. They are aware of all sorts of positive possibilities in the adult world, but they have little sense of how to build bridges to reach them. These young people are at ease with and itchy to use technologies that frighten many of the adults "in charge" of their worlds.

Today, more kinds of children come to school and stay in school, bringing with them a greater range of backgrounds and needs. Many of these children lack the "givens" of early life that a teacher once took for granted. They are at once enriched and impoverished by their environments. Further, there is a chasm between children who have benefited from rich childhood experiences and those who haven't had the same opportunities.

The Struggle for Equity and Excellence

Many of today's students come from homes where support and encouragement are in short supply. These children have immense learning potential, but they arrive at school with that potential weighted down by a lack of experience, support, models, and plans that, if present, would make education a fundamental expectation of life. On the other hand, many other learners come to school with skills and knowledge months or years ahead of where their learning is "expected" to be according to the standard curriculum.

Schools must belong to all of these children. Educators often speak of equity as an issue with children of the former group and excellence as an issue for the latter. In truth, equity and excellence must be at the top of the agenda for all children.

We cannot achieve equity for children who come to school at risk of falling behind in learning unless we ensure that these learners enter classrooms where teachers are ready to help build the sorts of experiences and expectations that the world outside the classroom may have been unable to build for the child. We cannot achieve excellence for children at risk of school failure without emphatically, systematically, vigorously, and effectively seeing to the development of their full potential. We must dream big dreams with them and be persistent partners in helping them soar toward those dreams. Both equity and excellence must be a part of our road map for these students.

Similarly, children who come to school advanced beyond grade expectations in one or more areas also require equity of opportunity to grow from their points of entry, with teachers doggedly determined to ensure that their potential does not languish. These children, too, need teachers who commend, and command, excellence—teachers who help them dream big, who cause them to experience, accept, and embrace personal challenge. Both equity and excellence must be a part of our road map for these students as well.

Every child is entitled to the promise of a teacher's enthusiasm, time, and energy. All children are entitled to teachers who will do everything in their power to help them realize their potential every day. It is unacceptable for any teacher to respond to any group of children (or any individual child) as though the children were inappropriate, inconvenient, beyond hope, or not in need of focused attention.

Grouping and the Quest for Equity and Excellence

Schools have tried to meet the needs of struggling and advanced learners by pulling them from regular classrooms for part or all of the school day. They were assigned to special classrooms with similar students and teachers who have the knowledge and skill to meet their unique needs. In full accord with common sense and classroom experience, much of the best research suggests that for struggling learners, such homogeneous learning experiences go awry (e.g., Oakes, 1985; Slavin, 1987, 1993). Too often in these settings, teachers' expectations for the struggling learners decline, materials are simplified, the level of discourse is less than sterling, and the pace slackens. Too few students escape these arrangements to join more "typical," or advanced, classes. In other words, remedial classes keep remedial learners remedial.

Also in full accord with common sense and classroom experience, much of the best research (Allan, 1991; Kulik & Kulik, 1991) suggests that when we place advanced learners in accelerated, homogeneous classes, they benefit from a brisk pace, stimulating discourse, raised teacher expectations, and enriched materials. In other words, they continue to advance.

In theory, creating heterogeneous classes should address equity and excellence for all learners. There are three major flaws in that assumption, at least as schools have practiced it to this point.

First, struggling learners will not experience more long-term success by being placed in heterogeneous classes unless we are ready and able to meet them at their points of readiness and systematically escalate their learning until they are able to function as competently and confidently as other learners. We have often claimed that such heterogeneous classes represent high expectations for struggling learners, but we then leave them to their own devices to figure out how to "catch up" with the expectations. Such an approach does not result in genuine growth for struggling learners.

Advanced learners highlight a second, similar, problem. Once in a heterogeneous classroom, advanced students often are asked to do a greater volume of work that they already know how to do, to ensure the success of other students through much of the school day by serving as peer coaches, or to wait (patiently, of course) while students with less advanced skills continue to work for mastery of skills already mastered by the advanced learner. Implicitly, and sometimes even explicitly, we suggest that advanced learners are fine without special provisions because they are "up to standards" already. Again, this approach won't achieve genuine growth for advanced learners.

A third problem with heterogeneity, as it is typically practiced, is the assumption that what happens in heterogeneous classrooms for "typical learners" is what it needs to be. Our premise has been that everyone can benefit from standard classrooms. In fact, it is often the case that what is standard is far less than the best we know to do, even for "standard" students.

When we create effective communities of learning in which the needs of all learners are specifically and systematically addressed, we will go a long way toward addressing both equity and excellence in schools. However, heterogeneity usually is a one-size-fits-all endeavor where the learning plan swallows some learners and pinches others. Such classes provide for neither equity nor excellence.

Old Ways of Doing School—Still Alive and Afoot

Despite compelling new educational knowledge, classrooms have changed little over the last 100 years. We still assume that a child of a given age is enough like all other children of the same age that he or she should traverse the same curriculum in the same fashion with all other students of that age. Further, schools act as though all children should finish classroom tasks as near to the same moment as possible. A school year should be the same length for all learners. To this end, schools generally adopt a single textbook, give students a single test at the end of the chapter, and another test at the end of designated marking periods. Teachers use the same grading system for all children of a given age and grade, whatever their starting point at the beginning of the year.

The curriculum typically is based on goals that involve having students accumulate and retain a variety of facts and skills that are far removed from any meaningful context. Drill-and-practice worksheets are the chief educational technology, and teachers tell students things they must then tell back, a legacy of behaviorism rooted firmly in the 1930s. Teachers still largely "run" classes, and they are likely to work harder and more actively than students much of the time.

To the degree that we focus on developing intelligence in schools, educators seem convinced that only narrow, analytical slices of verbal and computational intelligence are important. This is almost the same as nearly a century ago when the public believed that a bit of reading, writing, and computation would serve learners well in an adulthood dominated by assembly line and agrarian jobs. Schools still prepare children for tests more than for life. Sometimes, cartoonists make the point more powerfully than serious prose, as shown in Figure 3.1.



Please note: Figure 3.1 is not available for electronic dissemination.



Many observers have written wisely and well about why schools seem so resistant to change (e.g., Caine & Caine, 1997; Eisner, 1994; Fullan & Stiegelbauer, 1991; Fullan, 1993; Sarason, 1990, 1993). The point here is that while the rest of the world seized upon progress over the last century, the practice of education remained static. To overcome this, we need to begin our investigation of how to differentiate instruction for a diverse student population with some important assumptions.

As Howard Gardner (1997) suggests, even if we could figure out how to make everyone a brilliant violinist, an orchestra also needs top-quality musicians who play woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings. Differentiation is about high-quality performance for all individuals and giving students the opportunity to develop their particular strengths.



Copyright © 1999 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. All rights reserved.



6. Teachers at Work Building Differentiated Classrooms

These teachers were well experienced with traditional ways of schooling. . . . But they also wanted much more. They wanted to do studies that would be likely to win genuine commitments from their kids, studies that would offer so many options that each student could work "at his or her own level." In brief, they were ready for serious curriculum innovation—to explore some compelling possibilities that would extend them and their students.

—Chris Stevenson & Judy Carr, Editors, Integrated Studies in the Middle Grades: Dancing Through Walls

Teachers in the most exciting and effective differentiated classes don't have all the answers. Instead, they are dogged learners who come to school every day with the conviction that today will reveal a better way of doing things—even if yesterday's lesson was dynamite. They believe they can find this better way if only they aggressively search out and examine the clues implicit in what they do. This conviction guides all aspects of their work, every single day.

These kinds of teachers shun "recipe" teaching. They know that even if they do filch an idea from someone else's store of ideas (a time-honored and defensible practice among teachers!), they must adapt it for their own learners' needs, fit it to essential learning goals in their own classroom, and polish it so it becomes a catalyst for engagement and understanding among their own students. Long-time teacher Susan Ohanian (1988) expands on this point. She draws on Confucius's admonition that someone can reveal to us "one corner" of understanding, but we must find the other three ourselves.

I know plenty of teachers who are disappointed, indignant, and eventually destroyed by the fact that nobody has handed them all four corners. . . . It is up to us to read the research and to collaborate with the children to find the other three corners. And because teaching must be a renewable contract, if we don't keep seeking new understanding, we'll find that the corners we thought we knew very well will keep slipping away. There are constant, subtle shifts in the schoolroom. One can never be sure of knowing the floor plan forever and ever (Ohanian, 1988, p. 60).

Chapters 6, 7, and 8 offer examples of differentiated curriculum and instruction to illustrate key principles of differentiation (see Figure 6.1). These are not ready-made lessons to be transported into other classrooms. Instead, these lessons reveal "one corner" of the differentiation process to start other teachers in pursuit of "the other three."

Figure 6.1. Key Principles of a Differentiated Classroom

The teacher is clear about what matters in subject matter.

The teacher understands, appreciates, and builds upon student differences.

Assessment and instruction are inseparable.

The teacher adjusts content, process, and product in response to student readiness, interests, and learning profile.

All students participate in respectful work.

Students and teachers are collaborators in learning.

Goals of a differentiated classroom are maximum growth and individual success.

Flexibility is the hallmark of a differentiated classroom.


The annotations that accompany these examples are as valuable as the illustrations themselves, if not more so. They illuminate the thought processes, or the heuristics, that will enable teachers to search for the "other three corners" with their particular students, in their particular subject areas, and according to their particular personalities and needs as educators and human beings.

Differentiating: What, How, and Why

When thinking about differentiated curriculum and instruction, three questions are useful for analysis: What is the teacher differentiating? How is she differentiating? Why is she differentiating?

In the examples given in the sections that follow, Differentiate What refers to the curricular element the teacher has modified in response to learner needs. That is, it illustrates the teacher modifying

One or more of these elements can be modified for any given learning experience.

Differentiate How refers to the student trait to which the differentiation responds. It shows how the teacher differentiates in response to student readiness, interest, or learning profile. Again, any learning experience can be modified to respond to one or more of these traits.

Differentiate Why addresses the teacher's reason for modifying the learning experience. Teachers believe modification is important for many reasons. Three key reasons include access to learning, motivation to learn, and efficiency of learning. Any or all of these three reasons for differentiating instruction can be tied to student readiness, interest, and learning profile.

For example, we can't learn that which is inaccessible to us because we don't understand it. We can't learn when we are unmotivated by things that are far too difficult—or too easy—for us. We learn more enthusiastically those things that connect to our interests, and we learn more efficiently if we have a suitable background of experience. We also learn more efficiently if we can acquire information and express our understanding through a preferred mode.

The following sections present examples of differentiated curriculum and instruction. Some of them reflect modest, though important, modifications. Others are more elaborate. Each section is followed by an analysis of what the teacher was thinking as he planned in response to student needs. You might find it interesting to do your own analysis before reading the one provided.

Differentiation and Skills-Focused Instruction

Consistently teaching skills in isolation can strip learning of relevance and power. Yet there are times in most classes when teachers appropriately opt to have students practice a specific skill. In best-case scenarios, teachers then ask students to complete meaning-rich tasks or knotty problems using the skills.

In any class, student readiness for particular skills is often varied. Thus, most teachers see an acute need to differentiate how students practice skills. Here are some examples of teachers differentiating skills-focused assignments based on their assessment and understanding of students' points of entry.

Grade 1: Classification

Yesterday, Mrs. Lane's 1st graders took a nature walk to gather objects they could think about as scientists might. Today, they will work in groups to classify the items they found on their walk.

All students will first classify items as living or nonliving. Then, within those categories, students will classify by other similarities (such as shape, size, color, and type of object). Mrs. Lane has made one adaptation at several tables. Some of the early 1st graders will classify only the actual objects. At other tables, she has replaced some of the objects with cards that bear the object's name. This is for early readers excited about their newly evolving skill. Based on their readiness to decode the object names, several of the early readers have one or two cards, but others have many.

Differentiate What: The teacher is differentiating materials. Therefore, she is differentiating the content.

Differentiate How: She is modifying instruction based on her ongoing assessment of students' reading readiness.

Differentiate Why: She wants young readers to have as many chances as possible to use their reading skills. The word cards help nonreaders, too. When students at the various tables share how they classified the items, the nonreaders will encounter examples of object-word connection, which is essential to learning to read.

Grade 4: Proofreading Center

Fourth graders in Mr. Mack's class go to a center where they refine their ability to detect and correct errors in punctuation, spelling, and sentence structure. Sometimes they find written messages from characters in stories they are reading, people in current events, their teacher, or the gnomes and trolls Mr. Mack declares inhabit the classroom's crannies to observe what goes on. Mr. Mack, of course, writes these pieces with humor, a dash of wisdom, and varying degrees and types of errors, depending on which students will be called upon to edit them.

At other times, students leave their own writing in an in-box at the proofreading center so peers can help them polish their drafts. Mr. Mack screens these pieces, too, asking particular students to review certain papers, which he knows they can respond to in a meaningful way based on the author's needs and the reviewer's proficiency.

Differentiate What: Skills-based content is the focus of teacher assessment. Mr. Mack then differentiates the process or activities he crafts to be a good match for students' skill needs.

Differentiate How: The teacher is predominately differentiating based on readiness, which, in this case, is proficiency in spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure. He's also keenly aware of student interests. He has a great time dashing off error-ridden notes from book characters, sports heroes, or gnomes, knowing these notes will strike a chord with particular learners. He also matches topics of student writing with reviewer interest whenever he can. The approach works. Students look forward to proofreading in Mr. Mack's class.

Differentiate Why: Mr. Mack's students have different skill needs in writing and proofing. Thus, varying the errors provides him with an efficient way to move students along the skills continuum as quickly as possible. He also avoids undue boredom from unnecessary repetition of previously mastered skills, and he circumvents the confusion that occurs when the skills called for are beyond a student's readiness. His awareness of student readiness also allows him to convene various small groups for direct instruction on particular skills, and he can bring together groups with similar tasks for the purpose of checking work. Further, his students are highly motivated by his humor and the chance to help a peer do better with writing.

Grade 2: Alphabetizing

Ms. Howe built several alphabetizing boards with the heads of large nails protruding from brightly colored plywood. Students practice their alphabetizing skills by hanging words on the nails in appropriate order.

Ms. Howe gives a student a cup of round, paper key tags with metal rims. Each tag has a word to be alphabetized. Some cups contain unfamiliar words with few syllables and distinctly different initial letters. Others contain words that closely resemble one another in spelling or configuration. Sometimes she puts a made-up word on a tag. Students get a small treat if they spot the phoney word and "prove" to the class why it's fake by citing a rule or using a dictionary as evidence.

Differentiate What: The activity, or process, stays essentially the same. It's the material, or content, that varies.

Differentiate How: Again, skills readiness is the focus of differentiation. For one student, ordering words like "car" and "cap" is a considerable challenge. For others, words like "choose" and "chose" or "library" and "librarian" are more appropriately challenging.

Differentiate Why: Here, too, efficiency of learning and access to understanding are important to the teacher. She is trying to meet each student where her skills currently are, and she wants to help each child move on as rapidly as possible. It's important to remember that one set of materials may have a long lifespan. A cup of tags that challenges a grade-level reader in September may be just right in December for a student whose skills are developing more slowly.

Grade 8: Physical Education

Many times, Mr. Grant organizes whole-class volleyball games in his physical education classes so students can learn to function as a team. At other times, he divides the class in half. At one end of the gym, students play a volleyball game. Mr. Grant asks different students to referee these games: students with leadership skills and students who are comfortable with the sport. At the other end of the gym, he assembles a group of students needing work with a common skill, such as setting the ball, spiking the ball, or receiving the ball without shrinking from it. Students in the groups for direct instruction vary often and widely.

Differentiate What: Mr. Grant is differentiating the opportunity students have to develop mastery of a skill. Both the particular skill (content) and the small-group activity (process) vary.

Differentiate How: In large measure, he is focusing on student readiness in a skill. He also may be attending to student learning profile when he gives students with leadership talent an opportunity to hone those skills.

Differentiate Why: Students feel better about their participation in a sport when they can develop their prowess in it. They have greater access to that opportunity when their individual needs are addressed in a systematic, focused way for at least some of the class time.

Grades 10 and 11: Foreign Language

In a skills-focused exercise for Mrs. Higgins's German 1 class, she and her students will emphasize formation of past-tense verbs. But Mrs. Higgins's students vary quite widely in speed and facility of learning a foreign language.

One group of students having difficulty with grammatical concepts in general, and German in particular, will work with pattern drills in which much of a German sentence is supplied. However, each sentence uses an English verb, and students must supply the correct form of the past-tense German verb. Occasionally, an English noun or pronoun also appears, and students must supply the correct German verb. Mrs. Higgins has ensured that the missing verbs are regular and that other missing elements are essential to basic translation and conversation.

A second, somewhat more proficient, group has a similar activity. But they will encounter a greater number and complexity of missing words, including a few irregular verbs. Another group of students works with the same sentences as the second group, but virtually all of the sentences are in English and must be translated into German. Two or three students in Mrs. Higgins's classes don't need the skill drill. They are given a scenario to develop, with instructions about the sorts of grammatical constructions that must be included. They may develop the scenario for written or taped presentation to the teacher. A task that one group completes today may become homework for a less-advanced group within the next few days.

Differentiate What: Students are working with varied content. While all of them focus on past-tense verbs, other sentence and vocabulary elements vary.

Differentiate How: Student readiness is targeted, based on proficiency in providing basic grammatical constructions.

Differentiate Why: Some students really need an additional, guided chance to practice basic, regular verb formation before moving on to other challenges. Other students are ready to grapple with the more complex and unpredictable irregular verbs. They can draw on a greater range of sentence elements and vocabulary. When she varies requirements by degrees of complexity, independence, and open-endedness, Mrs. Higgins ensures that all students escalate smoothly in skill from their current comfort levels. Having students work with readiness-appropriate tasks also enables her to better target direct instruction and monitor small groups. This process, which she uses every few days, ensures that students struggling with German don't add to their confusion and sense of failure by skipping steps of understanding. It also ensures that quick learners don't "stand still" and develop a sense of complacency with the language.

Grade 6: Spelling

Ms. Estes pretests her students on spelling in September. Typically, she finds students who work with 2nd grade words and others who top out of an 8th grade list. She uses a spelling procedure that is the same for all students, but each student works on a particular list indicated by current spelling performance. She color codes the lists rather than labeling them with grade equivalents.

Students have a spelling notebook in which they write the next 10 words from their spelling list. Students create sentences with their words, have a peer check them, correct errors, take them to the teacher for a final check, correct any remaining errors, write each word five times, then take a quiz on the 10 words, which is administered by a peer. Any words missed become part of the next list. The teacher gives individual survey tests on numerous past lists on a rotating basis. Again, misspelled words are "recycled" onto the next list. The repetitions in this procedure prove to be quite effective in helping students internalize key spelling patterns. Students who demonstrate proficiency with 8th grade words at any point in the year work with a vocabulary procedure that emphasizes root words and derivatives from a variety of languages that have contributed to the evolution of English.

Differentiate What: Ms. Estes is differentiating content by varying the spelling lists. The process or activity remains the same for all students, except those who have tested out of spelling. For them, both content and process are modified.

Differentiate How: All of the spelling differentiation is based on assessment of student readiness.

Differentiate Why: This procedure provides access to growth for all students at a rate appropriate for them individually. The independence and peer assistance are quite motivating to the middle schoolers.

Grade 7: Review in All Subjects

"Blitzball" is a big hit on the 7th grade team. A number of teachers use it to review ideas and information and to help students latch onto important knowledge and understandings.

Prompted by teacher review guides, students work in mixed-readiness groups of four to six to make sure they know and understand key information. Then the teams compete in Blitzball. The teacher calls on a student, who comes to a line made of masking tape. The teacher asks the student a question. When the student answers correctly, he earns a chance to throw a tennis ball at a brightly painted plywood backboard. It has four small holes at each corner and a large hole in the center. Hitting the board gets one point for the team. Sending the ball through the center hole nets three points. A team earns five points when the ball goes through one of the small holes.

Students in the audience who talk during the game lose five points for their team. All the students stay alert for toss-up questions and opportunities to challenge answers for points. The teacher adjusts questions based each student's level of understanding and skill. This ensures that each student is appropriately challenged and has a fair chance to gain team points.

Differentiate What: Content is differentiated; the activity remains constant.

Differentiate How: The teacher differentiates by student readiness in the particular subject at that time.

Differentiate Why: Students are highly motivated by the fast-paced game, and they are even more motivated because each student has an equal chance of earning a toss. An interesting additional motivator stems from the reality that capacity to throw a ball skillfully does not necessarily correlate with student readiness in a subject; maximum points are often earned by students who may not be academic stars.

Other Principles Reflected in the Examples

Skills-based activities are not always high on the engagement scale. But many of the teachers we've seen have been effective in making their activities user-friendly with humor, opportunities for movement, and student collaboration. In all of these instances, the activities are equally respectful in that one version doesn't look preferable to—or less desirable than—any other. The principle of equally respectful activities also is evident in that every student is squarely focused on whatever skill the teacher deems essential.

We also have seen teachers using ongoing assessment of student readiness, interest, and learning profile for the purpose of matching task to student need. They do not force-fit students to tasks. It's also clear in these examples that readiness relates to a particular competency at a particular time; it does not equate to a statement about a child's overall ability or inability.

For example, a child who is a very apt thinker in literature may have difficulty spelling. A student who spells well may have difficulty with reading comprehension. A child who has a beastly time writing German sentences may do quite well with oral language. Some students struggle with many things, and others are advanced with many things. But most have areas in which they are more fluid and some in which they are less fluid. It is fairer and more accurate to look at readiness for a particular endeavor instead of using one skill to make a judgment about general ability.

Finally, teachers in these illustrations are crafting "escalators of learning." They do not assume there is one spelling list for all 6th graders, one set of volleyball skills for all 7th graders, or one set of sentences for every novice German student. These teachers demonstrate a systematic intent to find students who are one floor—or two or three—below performance expectations and to move them up with minimal gaps and no sense of despair. There is also systematic intent to find learners who are a floor—or two or three—above performance expectations, and to move them further upward with minimal "marching in place" and a sense that learning is synonymous with striving and challenge.

Differentiation and Concept-Based Instruction

The principles and beliefs reflected in the previous section are still at work in the examples of differentiated instruction that follow. However, the next examples demonstrate a teacher's intent to integrate several or all levels of learning (facts, concepts, principles, attitudes, and skills) and to differentiate curriculum and instruction from that very rich starting point.

Grade 12: Government

Over the next three days, seniors in Mr. Yin's government class are conducting research in groups of three to five. Their goal is to understand how the Bill of Rights has expanded over time and its impact on various groups in society. Students will continue an ongoing exploration of the concept of change. They also will explore the principle that the documents and institutions that govern societies change to meet the demands of changing times. They will work with skills of research and expository writing.

Mr. Yin has placed students in groups of somewhat similar readiness (for example, struggling readers to grade-level readers, or grade-level readers to advanced readers). All research groups must examine an issue such as

Students also have a common rubric for the structure and content of appropriate writing, and they will be asked individually to develop a written piece that stems from what they have learned from their group's research. A wide range of print, computer, video, and audio resources are available to all groups.

Despite common elements in the assignment, Mr. Yin has differentiated the work in two important ways. Some research groups will investigate societal groups that are more familiar to them, areas where issues are more clearly defined, or areas where there is more information available on a basic reading level. Other groups will examine unfamiliar societal groups, issues that are less defined, or issues where the library resources are more complex.

Students may choose to write an essay, parody, or dialogue to reflect their understandings. The teacher will provide guidelines for each form.

Differentiate What: While questions in the activity remain constant, the activity or process varies in mode of expression. In addition, research resources, a facet of content, vary.

Differentiate How: Mr. Yin has decided to modify instruction based on students' sophistication in reading, writing, and abstract thinking. (He could have modified for interest by encouraging students to select a societal group in which they were particularly interested.) Further, his three product options address both readiness and learning profile. The essay is likely to require less complex thought and manipulation of language than the parody. Some students might be more drawn to the dialogue format than to the essay format.

Differentiate Why: Mr. Yin sees access to materials as an important issue. Research materials differ greatly in complexity, and issues can differ greatly in clarity. By matching students to materials and issues, he maximizes the likelihood that students will come away appropriately challenged. They also will have a grasp of essential concepts and principles. Similarly, he has provided options for expression at varying degrees of difficulty. The fact that he has made some choices for the three days and encouraged students to make others balances the teacher's role as diagnostician with students' needs to make decisions about their own learning.

Grade 1: Patterns

Mr. Morgan and his 1st graders look for patterns in language, art, music, science, and numbers—everywhere they go. They understand the principles that patterns use repetition and that patterns are predictable. Today Mr. Morgan and his students are working with patterns in writing.

As a whole class, they have looked at how writers like Dr. Seuss use language patterns. They've clapped out the patterns together; recited them; and talked about sounds, words, and sentences. They have listened to their teacher read part of a pattern in a book, and they have predicted what would come next.

Mr. Morgan just read his students The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown (1949), which also uses patterns. The pattern it uses is as follows:

The important thing about __________ is that it is __________. It is __________. It is __________. And it is __________. But the important thing about __________ is that it is __________.

For example: The important thing about night is that it is dark. It is quiet. It is creepy. And it is scary. But the important thing about night is that it is dark.

Now the 1st graders are going to make an "Important" book for their class, showing how they can use writing patterns. Mr. Morgan will have them work in groups of varying sizes to write the pages. Some students will work with him to select the important object they will write about. These students need more assistance with the concept of a pattern and with writing itself. He will guide them as they tell him what to write on chart paper, making sure they work together to select a topic, describe what's important about it, and complete the pattern. He also will have them take turns reading their page, individually and as a group, and he will have each student talk about the repetition in the pattern and how it is predictable. Once the chart page is completed, Mr. Morgan will convert it into a book-sized page that matches others being created in the class.

Some students will work in pairs to complete a "template" page that Mr. Morgan has created. They will select their own language to complete the template and do the writing themselves. However, Mr. Morgan has given these students a list of nouns and adjectives from which they can draw if they "get stuck." A few students in the class are very advanced with writing. Their job is to create a page for the book "from scratch." They may refer to the original book if they need to, but most will develop the page from memory and can manage the writing adequately on their own.

Mr. Morgan will ask students from all working groups to read their pages to the class at some time over the next few days. He'll use this opportunity to have students talk about what a pattern is and how patterns are used in their book. Ultimately, students will illustrate the book pages, make a cover and title page (which are examples of patterns in books), bind the book, and add it to a growing collection of books about patterns they have created for their class library.

Differentiate What: Content in this scenario stays basically the same. All students are working with the same concept and principles, and all are working with skills of writing. The activity or process varies as the teacher adds or withdraws support and guidance in making the book pages.

Differentiate How: Based on his assessment of student independence in writing and developing patterns, the teacher differentiated the activity in response to student readiness.

Differentiate Why: In most 1st grade classes, students demonstrate a wide range of language skills. In this case, all students needed a chance to explore patterns, recognize patterns, contribute to pattern formation, work with writing skills, and contribute to the class book. However, to be appropriately challenging for the full span of language development, the writing task had to be presented at varying degrees of structure. It also called on varied stages of language development.

Grade 9: U.S. History

The following extended example describes how Mrs. Lupold and her 9th graders studied the Industrial Revolution in the United States. She has developed a concept-based unit that attends to student commonalities as well as their differences in readiness, interest, and learning profile. The example provides a clear illustration of a teacher attending to student readiness, interest, and learning profile. It also reflects key principles of differentiation, such as use of flexible grouping and ensuring respectful assignments for all learners.

This unit (and others throughout the year) is based on ideas such as interdependence, change, revolution, and scarcity versus plenty. Students will examine principles such as:

Among skills emphasized are comprehension of text materials, note taking, analysis, and identification and transfer of historical themes.

Without telling students the name of the "new" time period they are about to study, Mrs. Lupold asks students to work with classmates at their tables (random seating) to create a web or mind map of what was going on in history as their previous unit concluded. This helps them use what they already have learned to build a foundation for what is to come.

She invites students who like to read aloud to volunteer to take home excerpts from two novels. They can practice reading aloud so they will be prepared to read for the class the next day. She offers students who have difficulty reading selections from Lyddie by Katherine Paterson (1991). These passages are manageable by most students with below-grade reading skills. She offers stronger readers passages from The Dollmaker by Harriett Arnow (1954), a book for adult-level readers.

The next day, volunteers read powerful passages from the two novels. The passages describe living conditions during the Industrial Revolution in the United States, though they do not name it as such. Mrs. Lupold then asks students to do a "Think-Pair-Share-Square" on this question: "What could possibly be going on in our country to have people living this way?" Students first write their ideas for two minutes. They then turn to a thinking partner of their choice (someone close so no walking is involved). They discuss their thoughts for two minutes, then each pair is joined by another pair for a four-way exchange. They discuss the question for two more minutes, then the teacher poses the question again for whole-class discussion.

Eventually she helps them link what they heard in the novels with the webs they drew the day before. She tells them the new period is called the Industrial Revolution, and she helps them speculate how that name predicts what will happen in the novels. They end class by creating a chart. The teacher lists the things students know about the Industrial Revolution, things they think they know but aren't sure of, and things they want to know as their study progresses.

On day three, students watch a video about the time period, and then they select one of four journal prompts to complete in their learning logs. The prompts, all dealing with change, are at varying degrees of difficulty, but students are free to write on whichever prompt they choose. They then read their textbook and take notes on their reading using one of three organizers distributed by the teacher. The amount of structure in the organizers varies, and they are given to students based on the teacher's assessment of their skill with reading text materials.

As students read, Mrs. Lupold calls small groups to sit with her on the floor in the front of the room. She works with them on key vocabulary, interpretation of key passages, and direct reading, again based on her awareness of their needs as readers. When students complete reading the chapter, she gives them a quick quiz. At this point, the quiz is not for a grade but to see how to assign students to a key activity she is planning for the next couple of days.

Throughout the year, Mrs. Lupold works with students to identify and transfer key themes of history, guiding them to understand that people in one period have experiences much like those in others. Based on student knowledge and understanding of essential information in the unit to this point—and based on her awareness of their proficiency in reading and thinking about history—she assigns them to one of four groups to identify key themes in the Industrial Revolution. They're also asked to compare the themes to current events.

To begin the activity, Mrs. Lupold reads several portions of Paul Fleischman's Dateline Troy (1996). Telling The Iliad on the left-hand pages of the book, the author uses clippings from modern newspapers and magazines to demonstrate how closely the events of today parallel those of the ancients. Although the book deals with a period other than the Industrial Revolution, the author models the principle that the struggles of one period are much like those of another.

The four groups in Mrs. Lupold's class are given similar sense-making activities, but they differ for readiness. Mrs. Lupold calls the groups T, R, O, and Y. When she assigned students to the groups, R was the most advanced group and T the next most advanced. Group O was composed of students at or a bit below grade level expectations in reading and knowledge of history. The Y group was having the greatest difficulty with reading, understanding, and interpreting history. For clarity of explanation here, the group designations have been rearranged with T being the most basic group and Y being the most sophisticated.

Group T's instructions imitated what the author of Dateline Troy did. For example, students were told, "The author shows us that people used a lottery to see who joined the army 3,000 years ago and in the Viet Nam War. Now, work in pairs and take a second look at the video on the Industrial Revolution. Use it and the textbook to find important things that happened during that time. [The instructions gave some examples of important things.] Check your list of important themes with me before going ahead with rest of the assignment. What you'll do then is watch television news programs to look for current events similar to what was happening in the Industrial Revolution."

Students used a three-column grid provided by the teacher to list their key event in the Industrial Revolution, a current event, and how the two were alike. Ultimately, they were asked to show classmates a news clip and explain how the event in it was like an event in the Industrial Revolution. They were encouraged to put their grid on the overhead or make their own organizer to use during the explanation. Both partners had to be ready to present.

Students in Group R worked in groups of three. Their instruction sheet first asked them to connect right- and left-hand pages in Dateline Troy. (For example, "What is the problem shared by Achilles on page 48 and Darryl Strawberry on page 49?") Next, they were asked to think about key events in the Industrial Revolution and to search sources such as Time, Scholastic, Newsweek, and newspapers to find five possible matches. Then they were to select their two best matches, defending to the teacher why the two were "best" before they continued with the task. Ultimately, they created two parallel pages for a book called "Dateline Industrial Revolution." This book contained key events from the Industrial Revolution on the left-hand page and a collage of articles from "matching" news sources on the right. Students were encouraged to use cartoons, computer graphics, headlines, and drawings along with the news articles themselves. All students in the group had to be ready to present, explain, and defend the pages to classmates.

Working in quads, students in Group O were asked to take a look at Dateline Troy and create a parallel book excerpt for the Industrial Revolution. They were to select approximately eight events from the Industrial Revolution that demonstrated the revolutionary nature of the time. Then they were to find parallel "revolutions" in this century, create or find collage materials that made the parallels clear, and devise a way to both tell and show the parallel nature of the two revolutions in their own book. Students had to clear their plans for the book segment with the teacher before executing them. They were asked to work for insightful language and visuals. All members of the group had to be prepared to share and interpret their creation.

Group Y students could work in twos, threes, or fours. Their instructions said, "The period we are studying is called the Industrial Revolution, yet there was no army or fighting as in the French Revolution, American Revolution, or Russian Revolution. It's also possible for individuals to have revolutionary experiences. Using Dateline Troy as a model, develop a way to think about and show what you would consider to be essential elements in any revolution (such as rapid change, fear, or danger). Your comparison must include the Industrial Revolution, an individual revolution, and a military revolution. It must use important, valid, and defensible themes. It also must be effective in communicating your ideas: accurate, insightful, articulate, visually powerful, and easy to follow."

As the unit drew to a close, the teacher presented a lecture on the Industrial Revolution to highlight information, ideas, and themes she wanted to reinforce. She used the New American Lecture format (Canter & Associates, 1996). She (1) planned the flow of her lecture, (2) developed a graphic organizer that followed the lecture sequence (and that students could use to take notes if they wanted to), and (3) delivered the lecture in four- to six-minute chunks. She followed each chunk with a class discussion and summary of key points.

Next, she asked students in groups T and R to use their tiered activity materials to help her demonstrate how the Industrial Revolution isn't so different from today. Then she had students continue to explore that idea with a "4 X 4" sharing. The sharing groups were made up of one student from each of the four tiered activity groups (although the teacher did not tell students that this was the case). Depending on their group, students were asked to use their dateline materials to illustrate: (1) how the Industrial Revolution relates to our lives, (2) key events in the Industrial Revolution, (3) key themes or elements in the Industrial Revolution, or (4) how the Industrial Revolution was revolutionary. She did not assign a given question to a particular student, but by virtue of the tiered activity, each student was prepared to answer at least one question.

Students then completed a paired review for a quiz on the unit, using a study guide provided by the teacher. It included important vocabulary, events, and themes. Students could select a partner for review. The students then took a quiz. A more engaging assessment of students' grasp of the unit was their completion of a product they began about three-quarters of the way through the unit. They completed it as their study of the next unit began. The product assignment asked students to develop a way to show a revolution in

Students were to show how key concepts and themes (change, scarcity and plenty, interdependence, danger) were reflected in the revolution they explored. They had to draw clear parallels to the Industrial Revolution. Students could express their findings and understandings through a research paper, model, creative writing, drama, music, or other format. They could work alone or in groups of up to four. The teacher provided rubrics to guide product quality, and she encouraged students to modify the rubrics for their products and to present the modified version to her for approval.

Differentiate What: Throughout the unit, the teacher differentiated content (e.g., she used videos as well as text materials), process (e.g., the tiered activity based on Dateline Troy), and product (e.g., the product assignment that allowed different applications of key understandings).

Differentiate How: Mrs. Lupold differentiated her teaching in response to readiness, as when she offered novels on two levels for volunteers to read aloud. She also differentiated for readiness when she varied the concreteness/abstractness and structure/openness in the tiered assignment. She differentiated for interest through options for product applications and modes of expression. She differed by learning profile when she gave students choices of working conditions for the product, and she called on varied learning strengths in the tiered activities.

Other Considerations: Mrs. Lupold demonstrated many key principles of differentiation. All students had respectful activities. They were interesting and focused on essential ideas and skills. They were likely to promote both challenge and success for students with varying needs. Students worked in many different groupings: randomly at their tables, with thinking partners of their choice, with another thinking set, alone, with students of like readiness, and with students of mixed readiness. The groupings continually shifted, according to both teacher choice and student choice.

The teacher took great care to support struggling learners: using videos to supplement text materials, breaking a lecture into accessible parts, providing a review guide, building more structure into the tiered assignment. Yet they moved from a concrete look at the events of the Industrial Revolution to a more abstract application. Further, the teacher made certain that advanced learners were challenged. She offered advanced reading materials at several points, provided a very abstract and multifaceted version of the tiered assignment, and allowed opportunities for advanced students to work with peers of similar readiness. She focused on skills of reading, writing, and interpretation with the whole class and with small groups. But the conceptual focus of the unit was meaning-rich for all students. All of her efforts made the Industrial Revolution more meaningful and memorable.

In all the examples of differentiation described in this chapter, teachers were clear about the essential facts, concepts, principles, and skills that framed their subjects. The teachers also continually sought information to help them understand each student's point of entry and progress. Then they attempted to match curriculum and instruction to the learner's readiness, interest, or mode of learning. They wanted to provide students the opportunity to learn coherently, at an appropriate level of challenge, and in an engaging way. Each teacher wanted to link the learner and the learning, a process that's sometimes uncommonly difficult to envision amidst the "one-size-fits-all" classrooms.



Copyright © 1999 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. All rights reserved.



9. How Do Teachers Make It All Work?

Students at work create various kinds of noise. They talk and measure and puzzle out and make the audible messes that an assistant principal is supposed to abhor. Their activity also exposes the inconvenient truth that some kids do the work faster than others. The neat march over material that is possible when only the teacher sets the pace of the journey is no longer possible.

—Theodore Sizer, Horace's School

To this point, we largely have focused on issues related to differentiating the curriculum. The curriculum is essential; it is the heartbeat of teaching. But classroom management is important, too. It is the central nervous system of the classroom. Without the heart, there is no life, but without the nervous system, there is no function. This chapter focuses on classroom management that supports differentiated instruction.

Images of School

We all have our own images of "how to do school." Parents base their images on the 13 or more years they spent in school. As teachers, we create different images of school: from our own early schooling through professional training to our first years teaching in the classroom. Students create their images of school day after day in their pilgrimages to become "educated."

Images of school also are fueled by cartoons, movies, television, and books. As a rule, these images are dominated by rows of desks and a teacher working in front of the group. Students wait passively—slouched or wiggling—for the teacher to do whatever she had in mind for the day. Few of these images prepare us even to envision, let alone craft, classrooms that are differentiated in response to the array of children's learning needs.

Alas, there is no fail-safe way to master the alternate approaches to teaching and learning that common sense (and tomes of research) tells us would be more effective. This chapter cannot provide all the answers, either. It can, however, offer broad guidelines for those who seek more promising ways of thinking about, planning for, and being leaders in differentiated classrooms.

Getting Started

If the notion of a student-centered, differentiated classroom is new to you, here are a few suggestions to help you steer your thinking and planning in that direction.

Examine Your Philosophy About Individual Needs

A young teacher working hard to implement a differentiated classroom recently reflected, "Differentiated instruction isn't a strategy. It's a way of thinking about all you do when you teach and all that the kids do when they learn." Not only is she correct, but her insight offers important guidance.

Instead of first focusing on what to do in the classroom, it's wisest to focus on how to think about teaching and learning.

Add your own questions about teaching to this list. There should be an unlimited supply of them. In the end, your evolving beliefs about your classroom will guide your choices as you plan for and reflect on instruction. Knowing what you believe also will help you feel more comfortable and confident in answering students', colleagues', administrators', and parents' questions about why you teach as you do.

Start Small

Like students, teachers are ready for differing degrees of challenge. Many teachers successfully start differentiating instruction with small, well-organized changes. Here are some suggestions. Use the ones that make sense for your starting point.

Grow Slowly—but Grow

It's better just to do a few things well. Set goals for yourself, and stick with them, but make sure they are reasonable goals. Like students, teachers grow best when they are moderately challenged. Waiting until conditions are ideal or until you are sure of yourself yields lethargy, not growth. On the other hand, trying to do too many things before you have a chance to think them through leads to frustration and failure. Here are some small but significant starts that might work for you. Pick one or two of them as goals for a year.

These are just a few possibilities. The idea is to commit yourself to grow. Then try something new, reflect on what you learned from the experience, and apply those insights to the next new step.

Envision How an Activity Will Look

Olympic athletes often pause before an event, close their eyes, and see themselves completing the competition. They envision clearing the vault, making the ski jump, or completing the dive. This is a good idea for a teacher in a differentiated classroom, too. Take time before the day begins to ask yourself how you want a differentiated activity to begin, what you want it to look like as it progresses, and how it should end. Think about what could go wrong along the way. Then plan to keep those things from happening. Write out procedures for yourself and directions you'll give students. Of course you can't envision every possible snafu, but you get better and better at second-guessing and at making plans and giving successful directions. Especially in the early stages, improvisational differentiation is less likely to succeed than choreographed differentiation.

Step Back and Reflect

As you work your way into a differentiated classroom, be sure you think your way into it as well. When you try something new, take time to reflect before you take the next step. You could ask yourself many questions. Here are a few.

Make notes of things you want to retain the next time you try a differentiated activity. Also note things you want to improve. Make specific plans to use the insights you gain from your reflection.

Settling In for the Long Haul

If your teaching philosophy embraces attention to individual students, and if you develop routines and procedures for a differentiated classroom in a systematic and reflective way, differentiation gradually will become a way of life. It won't be something you do every once in a great while. At that point, you need to incorporate at least three things in your routines.

Talk with Students Early and Often

As you develop a clear philosophy about what it means to do differentiated instruction, share your thinking with your students. Be a metacognitive teacher; that is, unpack your thinking in conversations with students. Compared to the images many students have about school, you're changing the "rules." Let them know why and how. Here are some ideas that may help you involve your students in creating a responsive classroom.

Continue to Empower Students

There will always be classroom roles only the teacher can fulfill. However, many teachers have found it easier to do things for students rather than teach them to do those things for themselves. Look for things you don't have to do, and gradually prepare your students to do them effectively. For example, can students learn to move furniture efficiently and quietly when the room needs to be rearranged? Can students hand out or collect work folders or other materials? Can students check one another's work in a responsible way at any point? Can students learn to straighten up the room? Can they learn to file their own work in designated places rather than bring it to you? Can they learn to keep accurate records of what they complete and when? Can they keep records of their grades to gauge how their performance is progressing? Can they learn to set personal learning goals and to assess their progress according to those goals? The answer to all those questions, and many more like them, is yes—as long as you teach them how! Helping students master these things not only develops more independent and thoughtful learners, but it creates a classroom that belongs to kids as much as to adults. It's also a classroom where the teacher is not frazzled from trying to do everything for everyone!

Continue to Be Analytical

Classrooms are busy places. We often get caught in the undertow of "doing," and we fail to take time for reflecting. Learning to facilitate a differentiated classroom is like learning to conduct a large orchestra. It calls for many players, many parts, many instruments, and many skills. A skilled conductor hears and sees many things at once, but she also takes time away from the podium to reflect on things like the intent of the composer and balance among the sections. She listens to recordings of rehearsals and compares those to performance goals. She identifies a need for additional attention to particular passages and a need for sectional rehearsals.

As your differentiated classroom evolves, cultivate your analytical skills. Some days, just look at how students get into and out of groups, or look only at students who are currently advanced in the subject. Take notes on who elects to work with visual materials and who gravitates to kinesthetic opportunities. Videotape the class every once in a while, or ask a colleague to be a second pair of eyes in your classroom. In either case, you'll identify things that are going well that you'd have missed otherwise, and you'll discover areas that need additional work.

Be analytical with your students, too. Ask them to recall the guidelines you established together for working effectively in a group. Have them analyze with you those procedures that are working well for them and those that are not. Let them make suggestions for how to get even better at working together (or beginning class or moving around the room). Express your pleasure to them when you see them growing in responsibility and independence. Let them tell you when they feel proud. And work together when there is dissonance, too, not to eliminate the passage from the piece, but to attend to it as a whole or in "sectional rehearsals."

Some Practical Considerations

Many years ago, a professor suggested to me that the majority of teaching success stemmed from knowing where to keep the pencils. At the time, I was too much a novice to know what he was saying, and I thought him shallow. Three decades and thousands of students later, I understand. Here are some mundane but altogether essential hints for your consideration as you establish a differentiated classroom. The list is not exhaustive, and some items will not apply to your classroom, but the thoughts below may prompt you to consider something crucial about "where to put the pencils" in your professional world.

Give Thoughtful Directions

When you give directions for multiple tasks simultaneously, don't give everyone directions for all the tasks. It wastes time, it's confusing, and it calls too much attention to task variance. The trick, then, is how to let everyone know what to do without giving whole-group directions. Here are some hints and possibilities:

Establish Routines for Getting Help

For a variety of reasons, students in a multitask classroom must learn to get help from someone other than you much of the time. Teach them how to do that, and make provisions for help from other sources.

Stay Aware, Stay Organized

Many teachers fear a sense that they will not know what's going on when students work with a variety of tasks in a differentiated classroom. Plus, an effective teacher can't afford to be "out of the loop." In a differentiated classroom, the teacher should have more awareness of what and how students are doing, not less. Teachers must look at the issue of staying "on top of" student progress in a different way. Here are some helpful ideas for accomplishing a new way of staying organized and aware for your classroom.

Consider "Home Base" Seats

In a differentiated class, it's often helpful to have students assigned to "home base" seats where they begin and end class every day. Students always begin the class in those seats. Some days they will remain in them. If differentiated activities lead them to other parts of the room, they will return to their "home base" seats when the class ends.

"Home base" seats help you check attendance quickly. They make it simple for students to distribute work folders for you. "Home base" seats also make it easier to ensure that the room is straight at the end of an activity, and they provides an orderly format for dismissal or transition. Assigned seats also let you develop positive peer groupings for those times when students work at "home base."

Establish Start-Up and Wrap-Up Procedures

Before students begin to move to various work areas, let them know how quickly they should be in their new places and working. You should make the time realistic, but you also should be a bit on the stingy side. After students move through the room, let them know how they did. Work with them so they get used to settling in efficiently.

During the activity, keep your eye on the clock. Give students about a two-minute signal that their work time is about to end (flash the lights or just walk to each table and tell them). Follow that with another signal to return to "home base" seating. Students should know that you expect them to return to those seats within 30 seconds.

Teach Students to Work for Quality

A few students in every class seem inclined to measure their success by how quickly they complete their work rather than by how thoughtful they were in doing it. Be clear with your students that craftsmanship and a sense of pride in work are what matter. Help them know why. Let students analyze the differences in work that is hastily finished versus work that shows persistence, revision, and creativity.

Sometimes, students finish work quickly because it's too easy for them or the directions don't clearly state standards of excellence. When those are not problems, patiently and persistently insist that only quality work is acceptable. One teacher called it "working for a Bingo." She taught her students to resist the urge to turn in work until they had done absolutely everything they could think of to improve it. Then they could say, "Bingo! That's it! That's my very best."

Developing a Support System

At least four groups can help you on your path to a differentiated classroom. Colleagues, administrators, parents, and community members all can aid you and your students. With all four groups, you'll probably have to take the initiative to enlist their help. Here are some thoughts about seeking their goodwill and active support.

Calling on Colleagues

The unhappy truth in many schools is that some of your colleagues will be resentful if you do something innovative or expend more energy than the norm in your work. A happier truth is that in these same places, there are always a few soulmates who are energized by their work, catalyzed by someone else's ideas, and ready to take the risk of growth. Find one or two people from the latter group and work together.

In many schools, an art teacher, a special educator, a teacher of the gifted, and a few classroom teachers already differentiate instruction. They may not feel like experts, but neither do you. They have great ideas and routines already in place. You have ideas and questions to enrich them. At the very least, they'll feel enriched by the compliment you pay them in wanting to learn from and with them. Meet with them regularly, ask for time to spend in one another's classrooms, plan together, troubleshoot as a team, share lessons and materials, and take turns teaching and watching as peer coaches. The synergy from such collegial partnerships can be one of the most amazing benefits of a job that all too often is isolating.

Making Principals Partners

Some principals are suspicious of movement and talking in a classroom. I once watched a colleague with whom I team-taught change such an attitude.

This colleague was clear in her own mind about what we were doing in our differentiated classroom and why it was important. She often stopped by the principal's office to say, "When you're out and about in the halls today, you'll notice our students are working in groups." She'd explain why and add, "I hope you'll stop by and take a look." In the beginning, that's what the principal did. He would pause beside the door briefly. My colleague eventually invited, "I hope you'll stop in and watch awhile." When he did that, she encouraged, "Talk with the students and make sure they know what they are doing. I think you'll find that they do." While we taught our students to be resourceful and independent, she taught the principal to appreciate that sort of classroom. He became our biggest champion. If your principal is suspicious of differentiation, or not supportive, for some other reason, try being his or her teacher too!

If your building administrator already supports student-centered, differentiated classrooms, share with him or her your personal goals for the month or the year. Invite your principal to help you figure out how to achieve those goals in your classroom. Your principal then can target observations more appropriately, and you can draw on the insights of a veteran educator who sees lots of classrooms in action.

Bringing Parents Aboard

Most parents want appropriate things for their children in school. They want them to grow, to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses, to find the classroom exciting, and to wake up eager to go to school the next morning. Yet as surely as a differentiated classroom must confront children's images of how we do school, it also must deal with parents' stereotypical images of school.

Ask parents to write out for you, or tell you, their wishes for their child's year in school. Really listen and learn. Then systematically show parents how a differentiated classroom acknowledges and builds on their child's strengths, provides opportunities to bolster weaker areas, keeps track of individual growth, and promotes engagement and excitement. Use a variety of ways to help parents understand that you are building a curriculum and way of instruction that includes the same goals they desire for their youngsters. For example, periodic class letters, weekly or monthly newsletters, parent conferences with work folders or portfolios, and student evaluations help achieve this goal.

You might want to invite parents to take an active role in the class. Parent volunteers can review math concepts with struggling learners, read with advanced readers who want adult conversation about their advanced books, or work on a project with any student who enjoys the pride of knowing an adult finds him worthy of time and attention. Parents also can be a treasure trove of novels, computer expertise, maps, or hands-on learning materials—all things that expand the learning options for their own and others' children.

Parent-teacher partnerships are important to differentiated classrooms. A parent always knows a child more deeply than a teacher possibly can. There's much for the teacher to learn from that depth of knowledge. On the other hand, a teacher knows a child in ways that a parent cannot. There's much for a parent to gain from that breadth of knowledge. Looking at a child from both parent and teacher viewpoints increases the chances of helping that child realize her full potential. The wisest teachers teach parents as well as children. They eagerly seek opportunities to learn from parents as well.

Involving the Community

The world outside the classroom offers more opportunities than even the most magical classroom. It makes sense to open up a differentiated classroom to that larger world.

Frederick learns best when he builds models of things. Phan needs someone to toss around ideas in his native language before he writes in English. Saranne is more advanced in computers than anyone in her building, and 4th grade Charlie has pretty well finished 6th grade math. Francie desperately wants to know how to dance, Philip is itchy to learn about archeology, and Genice wants to use a 35 mm. camera to take pictures for her history project. The teacher who can facilitate all those things is rare, indeed.

However, a service club can volunteer regularly to make audiotapes for struggling readers and students with learning disabilities. Mentors can help students discover a world of possibilities with photography, baseball statistics, or jazz. A church can provide volunteers for students trying to communicate in two languages. A company can provide old carpet to cover a reading corner in the classroom. Museums and galleries can provide ideas, materials, or guidance on independent projects. A senior citizens center can provide guidance for a wide range of orbital investigations (see Chapter 6). The world is a classroom replete with resources and mentors. A generous teacher links learners with those wide options.

As mentioned before, don't try to do everything at once. Each year, devise one new way to link up with a colleague, gain insight and support from an administrator, learn from and teach parents, or invite a bit of the world into your classroom. Remember that becoming an expert at differentiation is a career-long goal. One step at a time, you can get there.


Copyright © 1999 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. All rights reserved.



About the Author

Carol Ann Tomlinson is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership, Foundations and Policy at The Curry School of Education, University of Virginia. Tomlinson works with teachers throughout the United States and Canada toward establishing more effectively differentiated classrooms, and is Co-Director of the University of Virginia's Summer Institute on Academic Diversity. She is also Secretary of the Executive Board of the National Association for Gifted Children.

Tomlinson's research interests include differentiated instruction in the middle school, use of multiple intelligences approaches with high-risk and high-potential primary grade learners, and practices of preservice teachers related to academic diversity. She has written many articles, book chapters, and staff development materials that blend classroom and research insights.

Tomlinson's experience includes 21 years as a public school teacher, working with preschoolers, middle school students, and high school students. She has taught English, language arts, German, and history. Tomlinson has administered district-level programs for struggling and advanced learners and was Virginia's Teacher of the Year in 1974.

Carol Ann Tomlinson, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership, Foundations and Policy, The Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, Room 179 Ruffner Hall, 405 Emmet St. S., Charlottesville, VA 22903-2494. Phone: (804) 924-7161.



Copyright © 1999 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. All rights reserved.



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