Differentiation comes in three types. First, teachers can alter the content. That’s easy. Second, they can vary the process, or activity. Finally, teachers can change up products.
Ms. Sneed Learns About Differentiation
When she was a new teacher, Ms. Sneed had no idea how to differentiate instruction. Her mentor, Mrs. Brown, tried to help. But Ms. Sneed still didn’t get it. “Looks like it’s time for some PD,” said Mrs. Brown. She pulled out a flyer.
“This workshop is coming up. I’m sure it will get you going.” Ms. Sneed signed up that day.
Three Types of Differentiation
On the day of the workshop, Ms. Sneed sat down at a table with three other teachers. “As our flyer stated,” began the presenter, “there are three basic ways to differentiate: content, process, and product. We’ll explore each. Then you’ll discuss possible applications in your group. Let’s get going.
“The first thing you can differentiate is content. To me, this is easiest to understand. You just change up student learning materials. For example, the reading level may be higher. Kids may be asked to explore more resources, or a broader range of resources, or resources at a deeper level. Sometimes you may even ask them to utilize totally different learning materials.
“Let’s take a few minutes to discuss how you might differentiate the content in your class. You’ll find a sheet in the middle of the table. Please write three examples for each.”
Ms. Sneed and her group got busy. “Wow, this is harder than I thought,” said one teacher. Eventually, they wrote three examples in each part.
As the groups shared their ideas, Ms. Sneed started to get the hang of it. “Remember, to reach each you teach, you need to change up the content,” said the presenter. “And just a word of warning: Start with your grade-level expectations and differentiate up, not down. When you make instruction easier than what the standards expect, you’re not differentiating. Instead, you’re modifying the curriculum. That strategy should only be used for students who are identified as special education students – and whose IEPs say it’s okay.”
After their break, the presenter moved on. “Differentiating the process may be most difficult for teachers. For this, what kids do is altered. You’ll have to really think about ways to change student activity during regular instruction. Again, write three strategies in each section.”
The group set to work. “For reading, I usually have kids construct responses,” said Ms. Sneed. “I guess better readers could use transition terms and add conclusions.”
As the page filled up, Ms. Sneed frowned slightly. Wow, she needed to change. Up until this point, she had always asked her entire class to do the same thing.
Once again, the groups reported back. “This will require a big shift in my teaching,” said a man at the table next to Ms. Sneed’s.
“Yes,” replied the presenter, “many teachers say this. However, once you get started, it becomes second nature. When I was teaching, I thought about it when I did my lesson plans and made a little note.
“Furthermore – and I’m sure you’ll take great comfort in this – you don’t need to use more than one form of differentiation in a single lesson. For example, if you’re asking kids to read leveled texts, it’s probably okay to ask everyone to do the same activity. In addition, some lessons don’t require differentiation. Don’t overthink it. Just do what’s right for all the kids in your classroom, and you’ll be fine.” Several teachers let out sighs of relief.
“Now it’s time for our final type of differentiation. Changing up the product serves several purposes. Sure, it helps you meet the learning needs of all of your students. But it also has the power to engage them. As teachers, we have a tendency to ask kids to complete the same products – over and over again. Moreover, those products tend to be – well, frankly – rather boring.”
Teachers at Ms. Sneed’s tables looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Ms. Sneed grimaced. What a harsh truth.
“So,” continued the presenter, “for your next group discussion, I’d like you to fill each section with as many different kinds of products you can think of. Just brainstorm.”
Ms. Sneed’s group had no trouble filling in their sheet.
“Hey, this is sorta fun,” said the lady sitting across the table.
Ms. Sneed smirked. “Yeah, and our classes would be more fun if we actually used these.”
As other groups shared their ideas, Ms. Sneed made a list. Shaking up products would be first on Ms. Sneed’s agenda. And although it made her rather uncomfortable, she would give her students some choices too.
One Foot in Front of the Other
Differentiation may seem daunting to you. Surprisingly, once you begin adjusting lessons to student needs, teaching feels better. With a little effort, you can make your classroom a more enjoyable space – for your students and you. Start small. Try one little thing. Then put one foot in front of the other. Before long, you’ll be a pro at differentiation.
Over the course of her career, Ms. Sneed realized that there were 6 steps to enjoy teaching. In order to survive, she had to organize, plan, and simplify. Then, to thrive, Ms. Sneed needed to learn, engage, and finally – dive in! Follow the Fabulous Teaching Adventures of Ms. Sneed and learn how you can enjoy teaching too.