Rethinking Traditional Practices
Bertie Kingore, Ph.D.
Differentiating instruction invites educators to rethink traditional educational practices that were based upon a time when students were more similar in background and readiness. Educators today must embrace differentiated instruction for students and assume a confident attitude that they can organize and manage this instruction.
Differentiation is a well known educational practice that is often talked about, sometimes not well understood, and frequently implemented ineffectively. Differentiation is difficult for some educators to implement and some parents to understand because their own school experiences incorporated little differentiation.
When readiness levels
differ, so must the complexity of instruction provided for
students. In a differentiated classroom, instruction is
customized to match students readiness levels and
enable all students to experience continuous learning. While
focusing on important concepts and skills, teachers fashion
instruction to learners needs by:
Learning takes place only when students experience instruction at a level of difficulty that is appropriately challenging and attainable (Tomlinson, 2003; Wolfe, 2001). Figure 1 charts the elements of differentiation by comparing what differentiated instruction involves, what is intended in that instruction, and what is not intended. Use this chart to prompt discussions among faculty. Share these elements, or variations you customize to your objectives, with parents to increase their understanding of differentiation and their appreciation of teachers objectives for children in mixed-ability classrooms.
Students are individuals. In a differentiated classroom, teachers perceive the differences that make students unique, not to distinguish one as better or less than another, but to form instructional objectives that effectively match each student.
Rather than whole-class instruction dominating, small groups of students frequently work together or with the teacher on different levels of concepts and skills. By instructing in flexible groups, the teacher is able to effectively vary the level and kinds of instructional materials as well as customize learning assignments--many of which directly respond to learners' interests.
Differentiation switches the assessment and evaluation focus from competition among all students to a student competing with self. District-wide and class-wide competition focuses on how many students are behind, how far behind they are, how many are on level, and how many are ahead. That information is significant to the accountability of learning standards but does not effectively help individual children to succeed. In a differentiated classroom, documentation of standards is acknowledged, yet the driving question for each student becomes: How are you doing in relation to your readiness and potential, and what instructional intervention do I use to enable you to progress toward our learning goal?
Students are recognized for current levels of achievement and then challenged to strive toward their personal best. Excellence is not defined only as the grade received, such as an A, but rather as achievement growth over time. How have I changed as a learner? is the metacognitive question that determines excellence in learning achievements for an individual. The intent is to enable students to experience success that motivates future effort.
Differentiated instruction personifies great teaching and what many great teachers aspire to do. Teachers want to differentiate instruction because they want to do what is best to enable students to be their best. Their instruction engages students as partners in learning who share the responsibility of being active participants in learning and assessing growth.
The quality of the learning opportunities offered students determines the level of their responses. If we fail to ask high-level questions and provide students opportunities to engage in challenging tasks, we must be content with basic student responses instead of excellence. I know of no teacher who recommends a yearly goal of bringing students down to basic responses! Consider the following guidelines to stimulate discussions among educators regarding appropriate and attainable challenge for students.
In a marvelous picture book entitled Winnie the Witch by Korky Paul and Valerie Thomas, a witch lives in a black house with her black cat, Wilbur. Unfortunately, Wilbur's color blends in too well in the house and Winnie frequently trips over him. Her solution is to change his color to green and later to multiple shades so he is highly visible. The results are catastrophic to Wilbur; he is miserable. Because Winnie cares about Wilbur, she returns him to his original color and changes the color of the house instead!
At first, Winnie tries to make Wilbur change to fit her environment. But that does not work. Because she truly cares about him, she learns to change the environment so she can see him better.
Educators are changing the learning environment so they can see students' readiness levels, learning profiles, needs, and interests more clearly. Through differentiated instruction, teachers are rethinking what they personally experienced in their schooling and working to customize the complexity of instruction so all students experience learning success.
Kingore, B. (2004). Differentiation: Simplified, Realistic, and Effective. Austin: Professional Associates Publishing.
Paul, K. & Thomas, V. (1987). Winnie the witch. New York: Kane/Miller Book Publishers.
Tomlinson, C. (2003). Fulfilling the promise of the differentiated classroom: Strategies and tools for responsive teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Wolfe, P. (2001). Brain matters: Translating research into classroom practice. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Kingore, B. (2005). Differentiating instruction: Rethinking traditional practices. ASCD.