Differentiation What Is it? Part 1

Some people think differentiation is a new way of teaching. Differentiation has been around for many years. It is nothing new. At one point in time it was generally thought that differentiated teaching was just for teachers in special education. Grade level classroom teachers often taught their content one way to the entire class. Those students that mastered the content got it and those that didn't were left behind. However with the inclusion of more students with disabilities in the general education classrooms; some teachers find themselves face to face with differentiation and implementing it in their classrooms for the first time. Gone are the days of cookie cutter teaching where you have one method to teach and just plug the kids in and see if they succeed.

Differentiation is varying the teaching methods and end product expectations for different students.  Differentiation addresses the learning needs of the many.  It is a way to meet our students' multitude of learning needs taking into account their learning styles, interests, experiences and abilities.
Differentiation is CHOICE.

 This is going to be a multi-part series on differentiated teaching. Please feel free as we go through the segments in the coming week, to post comments and experiences you have had with differentiated teaching in your classroom. LET ME HEAR FROM YOU!

In order to meet the needs of a variety of kids, we first have to know what have they learned about this topic already. How much can they do before I even begin teaching this concept.  In order to do this we first have to know the strengths and weaknesses of each of our students. Pre-assessment can give us an idea of what information a student knows about a specific topic. Pre-assessment can be as easy as a KWL chart where you have a discussion with the class about what they KNOW now about a topic, what they WANT to know, and then after the skill has been taught, what has been LEARNED. KWL charts could also be done as a large group, small groups or even individually as a worksheet. See the example of a KWL chart below. Grab yours for free! Click on the image.
KWL Chart
Pre-assessment can also be a pretest such as before a math chapter or one you make up.
Once you have an idea of what your students currently know, you can structure your teaching unit to meet the needs of your students.

Use materials that utilize  a variety of modalities in your teaching. All of us have strengths and weaknesses in everything we do and in the ways we learn. Some people learn by listening to materials; some learn best by reading materials and others learn optimally by having hands-on materials.

When choosing how to assess your students at the end of a unit, take their learning strengths and weaknesses into account here as well. In a  classroom, you may have students who can't write, are visually impaired, don't remember what they hear, have very low reading ability, but can learn what you have taught them. How can you differentiate the product you need to prove mastery to meet the needs of these kids? Some ideas are:  ask the students who can't write yet to give the answers orally; the students with vision impairments perhaps can have the assessment read to them.

When differentiating a lesson, continually ask yourself, "What can I do to get the most information from this student on this topic?"


  1. A couple of years ago, the system where I para'd switched from general graphic organizers to Thinking Maps. Are you familiar with those? I'm not sure if I like them more or less. I think, because I am a new teacher and I really haven't had a lot of experience with the "old system" (outside of Venn diagrams), transitioning to Thinking Maps probably won't be too problematic.

  2. Hi Welcome to Superteach's Special Ed Spot! It is such a coincidence that you mentioned Thinking Maps. Thinking Maps has been a school wide program at our school for many years. When I put up the KWL chart the other day in this post, I thought I should perhaps mention Thinking Maps, but decided to wait and do it in a subsequent post.
    Thinking Maps are great! Very logical and easy for kids to understand. We used them for writing among many other things and our writing scores improved immensely.
    For teachers, the hardest thing I found with them was remembering what to use the many different types of Maps they had for the appropriate thing. (lol) I happen to work in both general education and special education during the implementation and found them very easy to use for both populations of students.
    Hope your transition goes as smoothly as mine.