Differentiation as a Mindset
Director, Undergraduate ITE Programs
Research tells us that the practices of curriculum and pedagogy are more positively driven by a teacher's mindset of differentiation. As Christian teachers, differentiation is a pedagogical act of service.
When teaching is effective it can encourage, empower, and equip. A powerful aspect of such effective pedagogy is differentiation. Differentiation means anticipating the differences in students' readiness, interests and learning profiles, to create different learning pathways so that all students may learn effectively (Tomlinson, 2014). Differentiation is linked to pedagogy because it is a mindset rather than a set of skills. It can be viewed firstly as an act of thinking and then as an act of planning and is a continuous process.
Even though teachers are required to meet the learning needs of all their students the thought of differentiation can seem overwhelming. Catering for the differences of all students can seem impossible. This is where a ‘differentiation mindset’ can really help. Differentiation is not about the seemingly impossible task of creating individual approaches for a classful of diverse students. It is important to think of differentiation as a mindset - effective differentiation comes from a philosophy of inclusion and responsive teaching (Tomlinson, 2014). This mindset stems from the principle that all students can learn and progress. Beliefs that point to a differentiated mindset begin with the central premise of knowing the students and understanding their needs and potential. The mindset of differentiation centres upon offering dignity and respect to all learners, seeing diversity as positive, and creating equity of access to learning so that each student has opportunity to reach their maximum capacity. It begins then, for example, with knowing the profile of a class.
To learn more richly, many students will need differentiated approaches to content delivery, learning processes and task types. There are two key questions that teachers should ask, not just at the start of their planning, but throughout teaching episodes; What are students supposed to be learning? And are all students mastering it? (Marshall, 2016). It is safe to say that students do not always learn what we teach, no matter how well constructed our lessons seem to be!
A useful framework for approaching differentiation is the Maker Model (1981) which suggests looking at differentiation in four ways:
- Adjusting delivery of content by using different modes – visual (photos, YouTube clips), verbal (explaining and demonstrating), through handouts, kinaesthetic (role play, human timelines, and interactive models). This way, each student accesses content through more than one mode.
- Processing of content through various formative assessment activities, which may include reading, writing, researching, discussing, performing, and creating.
- Producing content for assessment by offering different options (research pages, creative responses, dioramas, mockumentaries, blogs etc.) with each having equal rigour, and
- Adjusting learning environments whether through grouping dynamics, classroom set-up or specific goal focussed expectations.
When considering differentiation there are three key principles to remember for every student – clear objectives, high standards, and frequent checks for understanding linked to adaptation of instruction. Again, knowing the students is the key beginning point. The approaches above can be used to plan for differentiation which can be incorporated into unit plans. Simply adding a column for differentiation to unit plans and lesson plans is an effective way to encourage a differentiation mindset that is student-centred.
Managing differentiation so that it is efficient and effective needs consideration – especially if common pitfalls of overthinking individualised instruction and disjointed community learning are to be avoided. Planning for differentiation in unit plans (as above) offers a way to build in a variety of ways of learning, and difficulty levels can then be adjusted too. Within lessons, research has identified that helping too much can stifle independent learning and problem-solving capabilities. So, Doubet and Hockett (2017) suggest a ‘1-2-3-me' approach – 1 minute to read or listen to instructions, 2 minutes to discuss with a partner or group, and 3 minutes to plan an approach to a task before asking questions of the teacher. Providing instructions to the whole class and then refining them for smaller groups encourages cohesion while catering for differences.
From a Christian perspective differentiation is an act of service - it is placing ourselves in the shoes of our students to meet their needs – essentially, it is loving our neighbour as ourselves. When we adopt a ‘differentiation mindset’ it instils in us an awareness of what is needed that can be built into our planning. If we extend our act of service to include positive classroom environments, and lesson delivery that is based upon sensitive awareness, then differentiation forms part of an interactive positive teaching dynamic that can empower students in their learning.
Doubet, K & Hockett, J. (2018). Differentiation in the Elementary Grades: Strategies to Engage and Equip All Learners. ASCD.
Marshall, K. (2016). Rethinking differentiation — Using teachers’ time most effectively. Phi Delta Kappan, 98(1), 8–13. https://doi.org/10.1177/0031721716666046
Tomlinson, C. A. (2014). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners (2nd ed.). ASCD.