Northampton Superintendent John Provost, curriculumn director Nancy Cheevers: What exactly is differentiated instruction?

Last modified: Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Picture this 8th grade English classroom: Four students read an article on Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and prepare a guided tour complete with period costumes.

Two additional student groups study models and drawings of the Globe Theatre. They also read brief descriptions of the theatre gleaned from public documents and, in response, write explanations of how the Globe might have contributed to Elizabethan life. Meanwhile, a fourth group of 8th graders view three different documentaries and record footage specifically pertaining to Shakespeare’s audiences at the Globe Theatre.

The goal of each differentiated assignment is to answer the essential question: How did the Globe Theatre contribute to Elizabethan culture?

In the scenario above, all students are engaged, each assignment focuses on the same learning goal, and all products are important to the class’s understanding of the Globe Theatre’s impact on Elizabethan culture. This is a snapshot of a differentiated classroom — a lesson designed in conjunction with students’ background knowledge, understandings, motivations, and skills.

This year the Northampton Public Schools opened school with a focus on differentiated instruction. The renewed emphasis on differentiated classrooms — inspired by the work of Imbeau, Tomlinson, McTighe, and Wiggins — is research-based, includes best practices for teaching and learning, and unites the district with common teaching goals supported by the Massachusetts Frameworks. Dr. Marcia Imbeau, a national expert in differentiated instruction from the University of Arkansas, provided the district with three days of professional development to initiate differentiated instruction K-12.

So what exactly is differentiated instruction?

Differentiated instruction stems from the research-based perspective that students will engage in learning more robustly when teachers proactively plan with their difference, as well as their similarities, in mind (Tomlinson, 2003). In essence, teachers plan for a variety of whole class and small group instruction based on students’ academic needs.

Most importantly — all students, and especially the teacher, must have a “growth mindset” to ensure student success (Tomlinson and Sousa, 2011). A growth mindset simply is a belief that all students are smart, can learn, and can achieve with the right supports in place.

A few things you can expect to see in a differentiated classroom:

1. Students are respectful of each other. Every student is engaged in thoughtful work that is highly interesting, appealing, and important.

2. Students are engaged in deep thinking about the topic — not just rote learning or worksheet completion. The work reflects the teacher’s mindset that “everyone is smart.”

3. Students are arranged in different groups on different days. This is called flexible grouping, and it is based on the degree to which a student needs to focus on a particular learning goal or the identified learning stage.

4. Instruction is conducted in whole class and small groups.

Teachers use assessment data and make specific choices for whole class and small group instruction based on pre-assessments.

5. Teachers assess often in order to match instructional needs with students. This helps teachers to determine who is falling behind, who is ready for the next step, and who is progressing as expected.

6. Students take risks. Students feel accepted, respected, challenged, and supported.

In a skillfully managed differentiated classroom every child can succeed.

It might be helpful to think about what differentiation is not:

1. It is not individualized instruction. Rather it is a plan for growth and learning for all students.

2. It is not special education for all — although it is expected that students who have individual educational plans will be held to the same standards as everyone else.

3. It is not special projects for the “gifted and talented” — although students who may be accelerated learners in a specific skill or area of knowledge may be given a “deep problem” to solve. All projects for all learners are special and engaging.

4. It is not “extra credit” for students who finish work early. Rather, these students may be given a different project from the start offering a deeper problem, a highly complex process, and/or a comprehensive product requiring greater independence.

How and why is differentiation a “best practice” for our students?

All students have access to an excellent education through multiple high quality opportunities to encounter challenging content, research-based processes for learning, and multiple ways to demonstrate their learning. A differentiated classroom is more inclusive because the teacher has planned for multiple levels of readiness.

Simply put — deeper engagement with appropriate challenge is better teaching and learning. Several Northampton teachers are already engaged in differentiation and the district will look to them to share their expertise with colleagues and administrators.

As a learning community let’s adopt a “growth mindset” and challenge ourselves to succeed together, to move forward in this direction of equality, respect for differences, and success for all learners.

John Provost is Northampton’s schools superintendent. Nancy Cheevers is director of curriculum and assessment for the school system.


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