Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Broadening the View of Differentiated Instruction: Differentiation Shouldn't End with Planning but Should Continue as Teachers Adapt Their Instruction during Lessons

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Broadening the View of Differentiated Instruction: Differentiation Shouldn't End with Planning but Should Continue as Teachers Adapt Their Instruction during Lessons

Article excerpt

Students in today's classrooms vary greatly in background, cultures, language proficiency, educational skills, and interests. To best meet students' diverse needs, teachers must differentiate their instruction. The research base justifying the need for differentiation is strong (Santamaria, 2009; Tomlinson et al., 2003), and there is growing evidence that differentiated instruction has positive effects on student achievement (Rock, Gregg, Ellis, & Gable, 2008).

It is not surprising, then, that differentiation receives a lot of attention in teacher preparation programs, professional development efforts, and educational conferences. However, the differentiation conversation to date is missing a vital component, and we feel that current conceptions of differentiation are too narrow to capture the complexity of effective classroom instruction. Where the literature rightly details the role of planning in strong differentiated instruction, it almost wholly leaves out what can effectively happen during instruction.

Differentiation and planning

The educational literature on differentiation focuses on planning. For example, Gregory and Chapman described differentiation as "a philosophy that enables teachers to plan strategically in order to reach the needs of the diverse learners in classrooms today" (2001, p. x). Likewise, Tomlinson stated that differentiation requires an "alternate approach of instructional planning" (1999, p. 14). Lawrence Brown conceptualized differentiated instruction as a "multilevel lesson planning system" (2004, p. 34). Moreover, foundations of differentiated instruction include such strategy created in instruction planning as curriculum compacting, flexible grouping, tiered activities, and student contracts (Brimijoin, 2005; Tomlinson, 2001).

Indeed, these perspectives and techniques describe effective practices and are helpful for supporting teachers in thinking about different ways to offer content, engage students in learning, and provide opportunities for varied end products. However, they provide a narrow view of the complex work of instruction to meet students' diverse needs. We argue that the adaptations made in the midst of instruction are an important aspect of differentiation that is frequently overlooked or discouraged.

Adaptive teaching as differentiation

Thoughtfully adaptive teachers adjust their instruction in real-time to meet the specific needs of individual students or the demands of the situation in which they find themselves (Fairbanks et al., 2010; Parsons, 2012). Therefore, teachers who effectively differentiate their instruction not only carefully plan instruction to differentiate for the variety of learners in their classrooms but also provide moment-by-moment adaptations to meet specific needs that become clear during instruction--needs that were not or could not be anticipated. Consider the following example.

John Fox is planning to teach his 6th graders about adding and subtracting fractions. Aware of the curricula below his grade level, he knows students have at least been briefly introduced to this concept. To prepare for the unit, he gives students a preassessment to gauge their readiness. In planning the unit, he considers not only where students are academically, but also the multitude of learning preferences in the room. Based on this knowledge of students, he decides to begin with an introductory lesson on the basics of adding fractions and then sets up a variety of learning stations to practice the skill or deepen understanding. For the lesson, he groups students by their readiness to add fractions and assigns each to one of the following stations: using fraction manipulatives to solve problems, creating multistep fraction word problems, or playing fraction games. Fox feels satisfied in his differentiation of content and materials.

As students work in the stations, Fox circulates through the classroom observing and assessing students' progress. …

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