21st-Century Differentiation

As teachers, when we think about differentiation, images of multiple student groups, various types of media to present information, color coded options for levels, and detailed lesson plans come to mind. As I diligently work to address the multitude of unique student needs, I can best describe my classroom as organized chaos. How did the term differentiation come about, and what does that look like in our evolving education system?
Carleton W. Washburne began discussing Adjusting the Program to the Child, in 1953. Washburne references attempts to address the problem of individual learning differences dating back to 1889 by Preston Search. Yet, 130 years later, addressing students’ individual needs and getting them to grade level continues to be a concern of educators. What we do know, is that when differentiation is implemented based on best practices, it is effective. Masten (2017) discussed that differentiation is a proactive process. For implementation to be effective, a teacher must adequately plan lessons and select options that apply to the student population in the the current class. Methods that worked last year, won’t necessarily be effective in the current year.
In an increasingly technologically advanced education system, and with the push for 21st-century skills, exploring alternative methods of differentiation may prove useful. I personally have found that adaptive technology, those resources that automatically adjust for level of difficulty based on user interaction, have been beneficial. At a former inner city school where I taught, I had a high percentage of Title 1 students who were 1.5 or more grade levels behind. We were fortunate to have a pre-test to our annual standardize assessment conducted in the fall. I used this data to assist me in altering my instruction and focus on specific areas to remediate learning gaps. My first year at this school, I had identified significant gaps in grammar skills. After much research and testing of specific, free, online resources, I decided that NoRedInk would be the tool that I would use to assist in remediation. The result: an average of 1.7 grade level increase in a four month period specifically on grammar, as reported on the spring standardize assessment. This was a huge win for our blended learning model as well as students’ level of confidence.
Front Row (now known as Freckle) is another technology tool that I have found extremely useful in addressing differentiation. Students begin by taking an assessment in a particular common core content area, and then work through the various levels until they achieve mastery. 50% of my former 5th grade students were 2 or more grade levels ahead in math concepts which also translated over to standardize assessments.
The gifted learner is a student population that greatly benefits from adaptive technology. These students can be challenged at their own level and continue to move at a pace that motivates them. They can be self-directed through these tools, and continue to grow. Most importantly, when these resources are utilized, the gifted learner is engaged in the same activities as the other classmates, and it reduces the feelings of alienation.
One major area of student learning that has been forgotten in the world of differentiation is the skill of organizational management. So many schools purchase assignment notebooks, have the fun cover contest, and expect all students to use them. (I’m guilty of it also). I have learned that if students do not learn the same way, they also do not organize their information the same way. This holds true for organizational tasks. While many tools exists, I have found the following to be useful:
  1. Schoology/Canvas/Blackboard – teacher enters in all due dates and assignment descriptions. Reminders are sent to students. While effective, this is my least favorite to implement as it does not teach the student how to organize or prioritize. The responsibility solely lies on the teacher.
  2. Electronic calendar – with many schools on one-to-one devices (iPads or ChromeBooks), it is easy to access an online calendar that is synced between multiple devices. Students enter in the required due dates and assignment details, and has access to the information regardless if devices are lost or batteries die.
  3. Student choice – restricting students to the way we think they should organize and prioritize is never 100% successful. Giving students a choice of how they would like to keep track of assignments empowers them to be responsible. Providing options is a great way to get them started. Teachers should be flexible to allow students to try different methods out until they find one that sticks.
There are three main things that I look for in selecting quality online resources:
  1. Adaptive Technology
  2. Achievements and progress displayed to students in real-time
  3. Reports and tracking for teachers
I left price off, but free is always a big plus!
As each year passes by, we have an opportunity to update our teaching methodologies to make the needs of our incoming students. The same must be said for the our personal toolbox. The tricks we have up our sleeves to reach each student in our classroom to ensure effective differentiation for all. The inclusion of technology resources will aid in the evolving 21st-Century skills students are required to master.
Masten, M. (2017). 7 reasons why differentiated instruction works. ASCD in Service. Retrieved from http://inservice.ascd.org/7-reasons-why-differentiated-instruction-works/
Washburne, C.W. (1953). Adjusting the Program to the Child. Educational Leadership, pg. 138-147. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_195312_washburne.pdf