## Differentiation Isn't . . .

The majority of teachers I've met want to challenge all of their students at an appropriate level, but they feel overwhelmed by administrative demands, parental pressure, behavior issues, paperwork, and a host of other competing concerns. The pressure to help all students pass standardized tests often means that teachers don't make time to challenge students who are already advanced or proficient. This is understandable and unacceptable.

Every child deserves the opportunity to make as much academic progress as possible every day, every year. That may not sound controversial, until you examine the implications:

Differentiation isn't easy.

Every child deserves the opportunity to make as much academic progress as possible every day, every year. That may not sound controversial, until you examine the implications:

- This means that it is more important for a child to learn new math skills than tread water and wait for the rest of the students to be operating at the same level, which might mean that the student should study math that is one or two years above his current grade level
- This means that reading a book that inspires her is more important than withholding it because it's a title that Ms. Smith likes to study two years later
- This means that the best reading class for a student might include older students, and attending that reading class might involve adjusting lunch periods and specials time
- This means that when a teacher has given a pre-test and discovers that a student already knows the material, she has a responsibility to offer that student different educational opportunities, instead of insisting that the student "practice" a skill he's already mastered

Differentiation isn't easy.

## Differentiation Isn't . . . Insisting That Advanced Students Become Tutors

Some students enjoy helping others and are happy to spend time coaching peers (working with multiplication flash cards, for example). However, no one can argue that this activity is academically appropriate for the tutor. Additionally, there are many advanced students who are not good at helping others; either they tend to take over and do it themselves, or they dislike having to work with others, or they understand material but struggle to explain it. I have spoken with gifted adults who still resent the fact that their teachers regularly expected them to assist others in school.

There may be plenty of appropriate occasions for all students to share strategic thinking with partners, or meet in small groups to brainstorm strategies, or work together for peer editing. These kinds of activities encourage all students to learn how to articulate their thought processes, discover new ways to examine ideas or solve problems, and listen to people who have different opinions, and those are valuable learning experiences. However, routinely requiring advanced learners to spend free time assisting peers is unfair to both the advanced student and the struggling student. It is the teacher's job to provide struggling students with meaningful practice and support, and the advanced student is not equipped to do that effectively. It is also the teacher's job to provide meaningful learning experiences for the advanced student, who is not learning any new content by coaching a peer.

I have talked with a few teachers who have a strong philosophy about how the classroom is a family, and the students help each other. In one case, this meant that no student moved on to division tests until all students had successfully completed their timed multiplication facts tests. One student passed his multiplication facts test the third week of August, and was then expected to help other students review their facts. The last student passed in March. How much new math instruction did the first student miss while he waited for his peers? Compassion and rendering assistance are important social skills. However, academics and independence are also important skills. School is a place that teaches students how to get along in society, which is vital, but social success cannot be the only objective of education.

There may be plenty of appropriate occasions for all students to share strategic thinking with partners, or meet in small groups to brainstorm strategies, or work together for peer editing. These kinds of activities encourage all students to learn how to articulate their thought processes, discover new ways to examine ideas or solve problems, and listen to people who have different opinions, and those are valuable learning experiences. However, routinely requiring advanced learners to spend free time assisting peers is unfair to both the advanced student and the struggling student. It is the teacher's job to provide struggling students with meaningful practice and support, and the advanced student is not equipped to do that effectively. It is also the teacher's job to provide meaningful learning experiences for the advanced student, who is not learning any new content by coaching a peer.

I have talked with a few teachers who have a strong philosophy about how the classroom is a family, and the students help each other. In one case, this meant that no student moved on to division tests until all students had successfully completed their timed multiplication facts tests. One student passed his multiplication facts test the third week of August, and was then expected to help other students review their facts. The last student passed in March. How much new math instruction did the first student miss while he waited for his peers? Compassion and rendering assistance are important social skills. However, academics and independence are also important skills. School is a place that teaches students how to get along in society, which is vital, but social success cannot be the only objective of education.

## Differentiation Isn't . . . An Assumption that Advanced Learners Know Everything

I have surveyed many different students who were identified as academically gifted learners. When asked, "What do you wish parents/teachers/peers understood about gifted students?" the overwhelming majority had the same answer: "We don't know everything." Put another way, gifted students may know a lot of things, and they do not need as many repetitions for new material to sink in, but they still need to be taught things, and they should not be expected to have all the answers.

Many advanced learners report that they feel afraid to make any mistakes, because parents constantly expect high grades. Peers and some teachers will make comments like "I guess you don't know everything," or "We've found something you didn't know." Being afraid to make errors is a frighteningly damaging mindset for learners. It is unreasonable to expect any learner to know everything. In many cases, advanced learners pick up skills and content knowledge on their own, which means they may have missed pieces they would have gotten from explicit instruction. Teachers have absolute permission to be surprised about a gap in an advanced student's knowledge, but they also have an obligation to keep the surprise hidden.

Successful classroom climates acknowledge differences but avoid labels. It's helpful for students to examine their own strengths and weaknesses, and to understand that everyone has them. Someone might be working to be more patient, while someone else might want to work on public speaking skills, while someone else might be working on fractions. Conversations about individual strengths and progress help learners speak thoughtfully and constructively about their differences, instead of making blanket judgments. It would never be appropriate for an advanced student to brand someone else as "stupid," and it is also inappropriate to insist that advanced learners perform perfectly.

Many advanced learners report that they feel afraid to make any mistakes, because parents constantly expect high grades. Peers and some teachers will make comments like "I guess you don't know everything," or "We've found something you didn't know." Being afraid to make errors is a frighteningly damaging mindset for learners. It is unreasonable to expect any learner to know everything. In many cases, advanced learners pick up skills and content knowledge on their own, which means they may have missed pieces they would have gotten from explicit instruction. Teachers have absolute permission to be surprised about a gap in an advanced student's knowledge, but they also have an obligation to keep the surprise hidden.

Successful classroom climates acknowledge differences but avoid labels. It's helpful for students to examine their own strengths and weaknesses, and to understand that everyone has them. Someone might be working to be more patient, while someone else might want to work on public speaking skills, while someone else might be working on fractions. Conversations about individual strengths and progress help learners speak thoughtfully and constructively about their differences, instead of making blanket judgments. It would never be appropriate for an advanced student to brand someone else as "stupid," and it is also inappropriate to insist that advanced learners perform perfectly.

## Differentiation Isn't . . . Reading When You Finish Early

Most advanced learners like to read, and will happily read when they finish classroom tasks. In some cases, they will read instead of completing classroom tasks. While reading is an important academic activity, it's important for teachers to provide new learning opportunities and challenges for students, too. Reading is a very easy thing to ask students to do; it's quiet, it's academic, and it requires little direction or effort from the teacher. While reading self-selected books can be more valuable than some busy-work tasks students are asked to do, it would be preferable if students were engaged in challenging assignments in the first place, so that they are not in a cycle of completing a task in five minutes, and then reading while they wait 20 minutes for the rest of the class to finish their work.

It's also worth mentioning that it isn't really possible to finish "early." If the student completed the assignment with a reasonable degree of mastery in five minutes, she finished exactly on time, just like the student who completed the task in fifteen minutes. However, it's important for teachers to plan for these discrepancies, and to provide students with meaningful learning activities, because there will be times when some students finish before others.

It's also worth mentioning that it isn't really possible to finish "early." If the student completed the assignment with a reasonable degree of mastery in five minutes, she finished exactly on time, just like the student who completed the task in fifteen minutes. However, it's important for teachers to plan for these discrepancies, and to provide students with meaningful learning activities, because there will be times when some students finish before others.

## Differentiation Isn't . . . More of the Same

Imagine that a student finishes his assignment before the other students, and turns it into the teacher. She says, "Terrific, Juan! Here's an extra page for you to do."

Juan may enjoy doing the extra page, but he might resent it. And, assuming he didn't rush through the original assignment and understands the concept, he does not need additional practice that the "extra page" will give him. Essentially, this teacher is punishing the student by giving him more work than other students, even though he doesn't need the practice and isn't challenged by the "extra" page.

If you happen to be a people-pleaser student in this situation, you might happily complete the extra page without complaining. If you are someone who thinks about how to do as little work as possible, you will make sure you never turn in any work before other students again. Either way, the extra page isn't doing you any favors.

In many cases, it makes sense to give advanced students fewer problems, because they typically need fewer repetitions to master concepts and skills. Their assigned problems might be more complex, involving multiple steps and/or larger numbers, for example. Students who struggle with a concept are more likely to benefit from additional practice with a larger number of problems.

If a student is struggling with a concept, it doesn't make sense for the teacher to repeat the content in exactly the same way, unless the student has difficulty hearing or processing information. Differentiation would mean that a struggling student could access the information in a different way, with different examples or practice activities. For example, if the teacher worked through a math problem on the electronic white board to demonstrate the process to the whole class, and the student didn't understand it, it's more of the same to walk through the identical process one-on-one with the student. Instead, the teacher in this situation could use concrete objects to model the process, or help the student discover a numerical pattern that might be helpful to solve the problem.

Juan may enjoy doing the extra page, but he might resent it. And, assuming he didn't rush through the original assignment and understands the concept, he does not need additional practice that the "extra page" will give him. Essentially, this teacher is punishing the student by giving him more work than other students, even though he doesn't need the practice and isn't challenged by the "extra" page.

If you happen to be a people-pleaser student in this situation, you might happily complete the extra page without complaining. If you are someone who thinks about how to do as little work as possible, you will make sure you never turn in any work before other students again. Either way, the extra page isn't doing you any favors.

In many cases, it makes sense to give advanced students fewer problems, because they typically need fewer repetitions to master concepts and skills. Their assigned problems might be more complex, involving multiple steps and/or larger numbers, for example. Students who struggle with a concept are more likely to benefit from additional practice with a larger number of problems.

If a student is struggling with a concept, it doesn't make sense for the teacher to repeat the content in exactly the same way, unless the student has difficulty hearing or processing information. Differentiation would mean that a struggling student could access the information in a different way, with different examples or practice activities. For example, if the teacher worked through a math problem on the electronic white board to demonstrate the process to the whole class, and the student didn't understand it, it's more of the same to walk through the identical process one-on-one with the student. Instead, the teacher in this situation could use concrete objects to model the process, or help the student discover a numerical pattern that might be helpful to solve the problem.

## Differentiation Isn't . . . Arts, Crafts, and Play Time

I worked for a principal who used to say that it's not fair to give one group of kids feathers and bubbles while the other kids are doing paper/pencil seat work. All kids want to work with feathers and bubbles. Stringent academic instructional requirements have made this concern largely obsolete, since few teachers have time to offer enrichment activities, but this is important to keep in mind. There are two potential problems with feathers and bubbles. The first, as mentioned, is that it's not fair to offer some kids a fun, hands-on experience that everyone would enjoy. The second is that an enjoyable activity doesn't automatically make it appropriate for learners.

It may be tempting to offer advanced students any activity that will keep them busy when they have already mastered the objectives, so a fun arts/crafts task, or computer time may seem like a good alternative to self-selected reading. However, it wastes valuable learning time if the activity has little to no merit. I would never say that learning shouldn't be fun. I am saying that fun activities aren't necessarily the best use of a learner's time.

It may be tempting to offer advanced students any activity that will keep them busy when they have already mastered the objectives, so a fun arts/crafts task, or computer time may seem like a good alternative to self-selected reading. However, it wastes valuable learning time if the activity has little to no merit. I would never say that learning shouldn't be fun. I am saying that fun activities aren't necessarily the best use of a learner's time.

## Differentiation Isn't . . . Tracking

Giving students different assignments should not prevent certain students from encountering questions that require higher-order thinking skills. It doesn't mean that students are assigned to permanent groups and should always work with the same partners or peer groups. It doesn't mean that a student who is ready for advanced writing assignments is ready for advanced fraction practice. It doesn't mean that a student who struggles with reading comprehension is somehow less valued than someone who comprehends material written for adults.

Differentiation means that each student is appropriately challenged with material that pushes his or her thinking. It provides meaningful practice with academic skills, and acknowledges that what is challenging for some students is too easy for others.

Differentiation means that each student is appropriately challenged with material that pushes his or her thinking. It provides meaningful practice with academic skills, and acknowledges that what is challenging for some students is too easy for others.

## Differentiation Isn't . . . Realistic for Every Instructional Minute

As much as we might like for every student to be in Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development for every second of each instructional day, that isn't realistic for most school settings. There will be times when some students sit and wait. There will be times when you plan a challenge activity that turns out to be too easy. There will be periods where it is preferable to use whole-group instruction instead of small-group or individually differentiated instruction. There will almost never be a scenario in which a grade-level teacher can realistically plan to differentiate five different subject areas on a daily basis.

The goal should be to value each student's learning time. If your efforts to differentiate instruction are getting you closer to being able to maximize the instructional minutes for each of your students, you are moving in the right direction. Differentiation doesn't happen overnight; it can take years before some teachers feel confident that they are successfully implementing readiness-based differentiation strategies.

Differentiation isn't the relentless pursuit of perfection. It's a commitment to discovering what works.

The goal should be to value each student's learning time. If your efforts to differentiate instruction are getting you closer to being able to maximize the instructional minutes for each of your students, you are moving in the right direction. Differentiation doesn't happen overnight; it can take years before some teachers feel confident that they are successfully implementing readiness-based differentiation strategies.

Differentiation isn't the relentless pursuit of perfection. It's a commitment to discovering what works.