Differentiation in The Real World

Please click the Differentiation tab below to see mind map I created from mindnode.com :


Aleta May

Week 2 Blog for Differentiating Instruction Through Technology EDET 637

Essential questions: How do you make decisions about your own actions for students in a differentiated classroom? What is your criteria for intervention, and/or for letting learning happen?

Here is the link to my bubble.us mind map:


Differentiation for me is, and has been, the only way to teach. That being said, I come from the point of view of starting my teaching career with by completing a master’s degree as a Special Education Teacher. I started right off teaching students with mild through severe disabilities—cognitive and physical. For my students, whether taught individually, in small groups, or accommodated in the inclusive classroom, their learning has always been based on need and/or instructional reading/writing/math levels. As stated in the BBC Active article, differentiation is driven by “3 key aspects: Readiness to learn; Learning needs; Interest” (BBC Active, 2010). I remember one particular student who could participate in class just by being there, albeit in a wheel chair with a one-on-one assistant to keep her safe; she had brittle bones and was bedridden part of the day. She could not speak, but she could choose paint colors through eye gaze, and paint with hand over hand assistance. She loved going to art class! I think where we as educators get hung up is when we try to force everyone to fit the elusive “normal” range.

In a less extreme mode, students of mixed-abilities being grouped together in small groups in class can participate in different ways. For example, in a group discussion, one may be a note taker, but by labeling graphic organizers rather than unstructured free writing. One can be a time keeper (McCarthy, 2015) to help make sure every voice is heard. Students in a group can learn from each others’ perspectives. Other examples of that how the differentiating process can be applied via grouping is to consider pairing students to think-pair-share, partner talk and small group activities like save. First, think-pair-share (McCarthy, 2015), allows students to have time to formulate an answer whether they need time to translate their thoughts from one language to another or extra cognitive processing time. Then they can pair off with a partner to share their ideas, and share with confidence because it is sharing with others as we rather than me. Another way to allow students think time is to use the “Save the Last Word for ME” strategy (McCarthy, 2015). Students have time to pre-read, highlight what stands out most to them individually, then read the short passage to 3 students who respond in 1 minute each as to what that passage means to them. The presenter of that statement can speak last about the passage (having the last word).

One student-centered strategy for facilitating learning through a small group setting is to use literature and discussion circles. Students need opportunities to discuss what they have read with others. Teenagers in particular are social learners. In order to make sense of the world around them, they rely on each other’s perspectives to center their own lagging emotional immaturity. Since experience “plays a central role in developing the brain and induces learners to construct meaning based upon what they already believe and understand” (Caskey & Anfara); I believe placing students in a discussion group that begins with the structure of roles for students allows them to access knowledge from each other and develop in ways that will impact their lifelong collaborative learning skills. Roles like summarizer, connector, vocabulary builder and discussion facilitator give students a starting point (Tomlinson, 2014).

The teacher’s role changes from being the speaker up in front of the room to one who may briefly teach a mini-lesson to the whole class or to a target group who needs that concept, based on pre-assessment of student’s prior knowledge background, vocabulary understanding, and/or general reading/comprehension level. According to Tomlinson (2001), it is also important to gather information about students’ interests and learning preferences. The teacher needs to know their students. This allows the teacher to facilitate the learning environment by connecting learning standards and lessons with options.

“A teacher who consistently and effectively uses pre-assessment makes an implicit statement that she has no intention of ‘delivering curriculum’ without understanding the entry points her varied learners will bring to the content she will commend to them” (p. 27, 2013).

Tomlinson brings to the pre-assessment table the importance of the teacher to know what the students’ understand about the vocabulary that will be taught in a unit, including their background understanding; what their understanding is already regarding the topic(s) in that unit, and consider what critical thinking skills beyond basic skills students will need to learn to do in that unit (2013). This type of pre-assessment will help the teacher know what level of scaffolding will be needed in order to provide support to students where concepts are more challenging for them; such as providing study guides, modeling (think-alouds), manipulatives needed, or pre-teaching of text structure (Tomlinson, 2001).

Personally, I use my observation, simple questioning of what students are interested in, what they already know to determine areas of focus within the structure of content standards. I use curriculum as a guideline and a tool, but I am continually supplementing it with materials that support learning with pictures, and as much student talk as possible that allows students to make connections between content presented and what is relevant to their own learning. Some criteria I use include systematically thinking out strategies that will work with the activities I plan that will provide students with opportunities to practice skills needed to master objectives (see Criteria for Selecting Reading, Writing, and Math Interventions in reference list).   http://www.tncore.org/sites/www/Uploads/Criteria%20for%20Selecting%20an%20Intervention%20in%20Reading%20Mathematics%20and%20Writing%20(2).pdf).

Last semester, I was introduced to the idea of engaging students in learning content from a novel reading that allows them to express their comprehension visually by using gamification via MineCraft. This was a perfect way for my students who struggle with expressing themselves verbally or in writing to show what they understand first by building environments in the game to represent what they got from the book, then to talk and write about the content from that point. This allows me as the facilitator to analyze what they understand using their visual representations and verbal/written descriptions as data for further planning. Using visuals such as Khan academy to teach mini lessons fits within this mode of using technology to differentiate learning (Light and Pierson, 2014).



BBC Active, (2010). Methods of differentiation in the classroom.

            Educational Publishers LLP trading as BBC Active.

Light, D. & Pierson, E. (2014). Increasing student engagement in math:

The use of khan academy in chilean classrooms. International

            Journal of Education and Development Using Information and

            Communication Technology (IJEDICT), pp. 103-119.

McCarthy, J. (2015). 3 ways to plan for diverse learners: What teachers.  Trending. http://www.edutopia.org/blog/differentiated-instruction-ways-to-plan-john-mccarthy

Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability

            classrooms. Association for Surpervision & Curriculum

Development (ASCD), 16-26.

Tomlinson, C. A. & Moon, T. R. (2013). Assessment and student success in

            a differentiated classroom. Alexandria, VA: Development

Association for Surpervision & Curriculum. (ASCD).

Tomlinson, C. A. (2014). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the

            needs of all learners, 2nd. ed.  Alexandria, VA: Development

Association for Surpervision & Curriculum. (ASCD).

 Caskey, M. & Anfara, V. A. Jr. (2014). Developmental

            Characteristics of Young adolescents: Research summary.

            Association for Middle Level Education extracted on

1-28-16 from:


Criteria for Selecting Reading, Writing, and Math Interventions in reference list: http://www.tncore.org/sites/www/Uploads/Criteria%20for%20Selecting%20an%20Intervention%20in%20Reading%20Mathematics%20and%20Writing%20(2).pdf)

2 thoughts on “Differentiation in The Real World

  1. tessiesim

    Aleta, This quote from your post jumped out at me: “I think where we as educators get hung up is when we try to force everyone to fit the elusive “normal” range.” As a special education teacher, I know that not all students fall in to the normal range, and I think that differentiation is the key. I like your examples of having students do tasks and take roles in areas where they can, from the girl indicating nonverbally which paint color she wanted, to a certain student being timekeeper as part of a group. Differentiation is all about finding student strengths and building upon them for learning, and I am enjoying the process of learning about it.

    1. aletakmay Post author

      It is great to be quoted 🙂
      To me it is more important to focus on what a student can learn than on any deficiencies. Students who are working above average in our classes need extra challenge. Experience, a large teacher toolkit (online especially), and a passion for igniting a spark in students’ desire to learn are ingredients to successful teaching.


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