Differentiation Basics
  1. “When we catch fish, we bait the hook with what the fish like, not what the fisherman likes.”
(Gregory & Chapman, 2005)
    The traditional one-textbook, 25 child classroom does not lend itself to individualized instruction.  It is also impossible to write 25 lesson plans: having one decent lesson plan for each day is challenge enough!  Enter differentiation.  It turns out that there are many strategies out there that can, in effect, provide a different experience for each of your students.  You may already use or at least be familiar with many of the strategies presented here.  When teachers use them as part of differentiation, however, they are actively employing the strategies with an understanding that students differ in three areas:
  1.  interest
  2.  readiness
  3.  learning style
Differentiation is defined as a process and a set of strategies that seek to individualize learning in response to the unique abilities and desires of each child.  
Why Differentiate?
    In the 21st century classroom, teachers compete for students’ attention with an ever-increasing array of new, exciting technologies such as computer games, cell phones, and 1000 cable channels.  The most effective teachers plan lessons that use their students’ interests to captivate their audience and create a rich learning experience that students can connect to their own lives.
    The notion of readiness is grounded in Lev Vygotski’s zone of proximal development theory (ZPD), which says that children learn best when they are challenged but not overwhelmed.  One study found that when students were performing at about 80% accuracy, they learned more and felt better about themselves (Tomlinson, 2002).  
    This issue has become urgent for teachers because diversity of readiness is increasing within the classroom.  One reason this is true is because tracking, the process of separating students into different classes according to readiness, is on the decline.  Studies have shown that while tracking may work for higher level students, it can be detrimental to lower-ability students (Tomlinson, 2005).  Another reason readiness has become so diverse in the classroom is that in the last 10 years, classrooms across the country have seen a big increase in students with disabilities.  The U.S. Department of Education found that 96% of teachers have students in their classrooms who have been identified with a learning disability (2001).
    Differentiation strategies seek to understand the readiness of each student and provide learning tasks that get each student into his optimal learning zone.
Learning Style
    People learn in different ways.  When teachers offer assignments and tasks that take this into account, they are differentiating for learning style.
    In the warm-up exercise, Thinking About a Mixed-Ability Classroom (see sidebar above), most people gravitate to one or two tasks more than the others.  Such an exercise differentiates for learning styles, hoping to capture your attention and create a more effective learning experience by appealing to your individual cognitive tendencies.
    There are many terms and frameworks in the pedagogical cannon regarding the theories of learning styles and multiple intelligences.  You have probably heard the terms visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners, concrete random thinkers, analytical learners, verbal/ linguistic learners, etc.  Understanding frameworks and writing lessons that appeal to different learning styles are important elements of differentiation.
Lev Vygotski
Warm-up activity
“Thinking About a Mixed-Ability Classroom”