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What Differentiated Instruction Really Means

Originally published in the September 2021 issue of ASCD's EL magazine.

When I wrote my article “Why We Need Differentiation Now More Than Ever” for an ASCD newsletter in May of last year (Westman, 2020), remote learning was new. It was just weeks after the initial school closures due to COVID-19, and everyone’s emotions were raw. As our school systems (and many of us) were in survival mode, remote learning had become our lifeline, but certainly not our lifestyle. At the time, one question I kept getting asked was, “How do I differentiate for students virtually?” My advice at that time was for teachers in all grade levels and content areas to make their essential question to students, “How do you feel?” and use their responses as a form of formative assessment for ­figuring out what they needed most.

Now, with a year under our belts of some combination of remote, hybrid, or in-person learning with social distancing restrictions—and (hopefully) a bit of time this summer to relax and restore—we are ready to take on the 2021–2022 school year. This time the question on everyone’s mind is, “What will our students need?” And, once again, the idea of differentiation is taking center stage.

Many are looking to differentiating instruction as a means to undo “learning loss.” In fact, a Google search of the terms “learning loss and differentiation” returns over 55 million results. Schools are grateful for additional funds to address learning loss, quickly amp up ­professional learning, focus on assessing where students are, and firm up differentiation practices and multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS). But differentiating is not a new approach or program—in fact, MTSS and differentiation are hot topics almost every school year, whether we’re in a pandemic or not. Veteran educators have likely heard about this approach many times in their careers, though they might still be confused as to how to do it, and novice teachers have likely read about it in their studies but not had any practical experience implementing the approach successfully.

As a consultant who works with school systems internationally on differentiation, I frequently hear comments like, “Oh, we tried ­differentiation a few years ago. It didn’t work.” Or “I used to differentiate for my students, but I just don’t have time for that now.”

Sadly, this is the case for many educators. And even more disheartening is that fact that we often throw in the towel because we hold a flawed view of what differentiation is and what it is not. We assume that differentiation must have this or must have that, when really differentiation only needs to include one thing: a clear focus on students’ academic and social-emotional needs. When we are responsive to our students’ needs, any action we take to meet those needs is differentiation.

The tricky piece here is adequately answering the question, “What do our students really need?” Surely, each student will need different things. And teachers need effective and sustainable strategies to meet these needs. So, where do we start?

1. Focus on growth instead of loss

Educators have been anticipating “learning loss” for the past 18 months. But focusing on “loss” assumes something was “had” in the first place. If students “lost” their learning, did they ever really have it? Instead of focusing on “loss,” let’s focus on determining whether or not students have met learning targets. The way we do this is through instructional clarity: having clear goalposts of what learning looks like and centering your planning process around success criteria and formative assessment. Ensure that for every lesson and unit of study:

  • The focus standard is clearly ­identified.

  • Learning intentions are clearly defined (these are the discrete skills and/or concepts derived from the standard).

  • The success criteria are clearly identified (these are the indicators that the student has mastered the learning intention. Collectively they indicate proficiency in the learning intention).

  • For the success criterion, there are formative assessments. Evidence from these formative assessments is then regularly used to inform instruction. And with that data we. . . .

Originally published in the September issue of ASCD's EL magazine. Read the full text here.


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