It’s the first week of school, and you receive the following note from your child’s teacher:
Dear Parents, This summer I attended a workshop on differentiated instruction, and I’m excited about using it in my classes. My goal with differentiating is to meet the needs of all of my students, so I’ll be using many different teaching and learning strategies over the course of the year. I hope that you’ll see your child learning and enjoying school. Please do not hesitate to call or e-mail with your questions or concerns.
Your first thought is, “This sounds great.” And it’s likely that your second thought is, “But what does it mean for my child?”
Challenging as it may be, your child’s teachers should make it their business to care about the growth of all their students
Here’s a practical definition of differentiated instruction: It’s a teacher’s proactive response to students’ needs as defined by their abilities, learning styles, and interests. The goal is to provide challenge and success for all learners. Differentiation is based on the notion that, in order to learn, students need to experience a bit of challenge and that when work is too easy intellectual growth is impaired or, perhaps, even impossible.
So how do you know if differentiation is working in your child’s classroom? Certainly, it helps to listen to your child. Is he or she complaining of boredom in the class? That’s a bad thing. Is he or she complaining that the work is too hard? That could actually be a good thing. The reality is that many gifted learners go unchallenged throughout their schooling, and this lack of challenge can have lasting detrimental effects on their abilities to learn. Not everything should come easily to them. Is the work your child doing within his grasp if he really applies himself? If so, it’s probably an appropriate level of challenge. On the other hand, if the work is developmentally inappropriate (for example, your child is being asked to work with content that is far beyond his emotional readiness for it), then the teacher’s attempts at differentiation may have gone too far.
You should also hear your child talking about working with a variety of different students. Although it’s certainly the case that gifted learners benefit from working with others who are their academic and intellectual peers, in a well-differentiated classroom a teacher seeks to group students so that the class doesn’t fall into a single grouping mode, such as those that are based only on academic ability. So, some days your child’s ability in a particular content area will matter greatly, but other days, he may be grouped with classmates based on his interests or on the ways he learns best (for example, is he an auditory or visual learner? Or does he do his best work alone or with others?).
What you don’t want to hear is that your gifted child is spending the bulk of his or her time working independently without interaction with the teacher or that he or she is frequently being used as a tutor for other learners. Unfortunately, in many classrooms, these are the go-to strategies for managing students’ giftedness: let them teach themselves in the back of the room or let them help others who are not as academically strong. All students, gifted or not, should experience growth through their interactions with their teachers and classroom peers. Challenging as it may be, your child’s teachers should make it their business to care about the growth of all their students, not only the ones who struggle.
Thus, teachers in differentiated classrooms must use a variety of teaching and learning strategies designed to help each learner advance as far as he or she can. First, teachers should be assessing students almost constantly, striving to determine what individual students already know and can do and then moving them beyond those points as quickly as possible. Second, teachers should incorporate tiered assignments, curriculum compacting, and independent studies that are based on the previously-collected assessment data. Tiered assignments allow students to work on the same skill or with the same material at different ability levels so they all experience appropriate challenges while learning the content. Curriculum compacting is a streamlining of instruction and practice so that students are not asked to work with content and processes that they have already mastered. Independent studies often result from curriculum compacting and allow students to pursue topics of interest to them while advancing their competency and knowledge levels.
To ensure that differentiation is working for your gifted child, it may help to ask the following types of questions as you interact with your child’s teachers:
- How are you finding out about what my child already knows and can already do?
- What kind of information would you like me to provide as you learn more about my child?
- How are you ensuring that my child is being challenged in his or her daily work and assignments?
- If my child already knows a lot about a particular topic and has clearly mastered the associated skills, what other possibilities exist for him or her?
- How is my child growing in this subject area?
Keep in mind that differentiation is a complex approach to teaching that is new to many teachers, both novice and veteran, and takes time to master. And, certainly, mistakes will be made, but even the smallest changes in a teacher’s approach can have sizeable effects on learners. Probably there’s one main thing to look for when evaluating your gifted child’s experiences in school: Is he or she excited about the learning taking place and looking forward to classes? The more teachers can engage students by responding to their needs, the more they will learn.
—Caroline C. Eidson, PhD
Caroline Eidson has co-authored four books about curriculum differentiation and speaks regularly on the topic to elementary, middle-school, and high-school teachers at the local, state, and national levels as well as to pre-service and practicing teachers in undergraduate and graduate programs. Caroline co-founded a school for gifted learners, led another school’s accreditation efforts, and has served on school evaluation teams.
Demystifying Differentiation in Elementary School: Tools, Strategies, and Activities to Use NOW, Caroline C. Eidson, Robert Iseminger, and Christopher Taibbi, Pieces of Learning, 2008
Demystifying Differentiation in Middle School: Tools, Strategies, and Activities to Use NOW, Caroline C. Eidson, Robert Iseminger, and Christopher Taibbi, Pieces of Learning, 2007
The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, Carol A. Tomlinson, Prentice Hall, 2004
How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, 2nd edition, by Carol A. Tomlinson, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2004
Differentiation: From Planning to Practice, Grades 6-12, Rick Wormeli, Stenhouse, 2007