Ontario Extend Activity: Misunderstood

As an instructor in the Faculty of Education at Lakehead University, Orillia I teach a variety of subjects including Digital Learning and Teaching, Math, and Science. One of the topics that my students struggle with  and misunderstand the most is the idea of differentiation.

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For many Teacher-Candidates differentiation is a box on the lesson plan where they have to list how they will implement differentiated instruction into their curriculum. They are taught that they should differentiate the Content, Process, Product, Environment, and Assessment however they often misunderstand what that means. Like many other topics that new teachers are learning, differentiation is not a set of strategies that they can memorize and implement in the same way all the time. Instead it is very classroom and student specific and techniques that worked with one group of students might not work with another.

What I really want my Teacher-Candidates to understand is that good differentiation is embedded in good curriculum. If the problems and questions we give the students are appropriate then the students can use the strategies that work best for them to solve the problem.

Unfortunately it seems easier to explain what differentiation is not.

  • Differentiation is not only for gifted students or students with learning disabilities.
  • Differentiation is not individualized instruction.
  • Differentiation is not just group work.
  • Differentiation is not grouping students by ability.
  • Differentiation is not just allowing students to work where they want.
  • Differentiation is not dumbing down the material to make it easier for the student.

Most importantly differentiation is not just for the benefit of one or two students, it benefits all students because it allows students to demonstrate their learning and understanding in the way that works best for them.

There is a lot of intersection between differentiation and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL posits that no two brains learn the same way and that by providing multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement in the curriculum from the beginning, all students can become expert learners (Universal Design for Learning Guidelines). UDL is not the complete answer to differentiation, however it is a great start.

Sketchnote about Universal Design for Learning from Open Professional Education Network and the Center for Applied Special Education (CAST).

I have seen many analogies to explain differentiation. There is the winding roadway with students driving different cars and starting at different points. There is also the gardener analogy where students are the plants who prefer different resources and environments to grow and blossom. Unfortunately I have yet to see a really good analogy that explains differentiation as thoroughly as I’d like. Have you?

References and Resources

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