Five preconditions for good differentiation

We organize schools and classrooms according to our Grammar of Schooling - an entity consisting of presuppositions, rules and traditions that determine how we organize schooling. Times have changed, but many Grammars of Schooling have not. In times of impactful evolution (in case of large migration waves), education is challenged to adapt the Grammar of Schooling to newly emerging needs.

It can help you to focus on the following aspects.

Differentiation can go much further than classroom differentiation. Sometimes the learning needs in one group of students differ so much that the following four aspects can be taken int account to change some aspects of your classroom and even school organization.

1. Grouping learning goals

Some learning goals deserve explicit instruction (the letters of the alphabet). Others learning goals are more abstract (calculation with fractions, for instance). Putting abstract learning goals in a concrete context and grouping them with other learning goals, can make some subject matters more accessible for newcomers.

Compare these to lesson plans:

Explicit instruction Thematic instruction
9h – 9h35
Technical reading, words about clothes

9h35 – 10h
· Reading comprehension: what is going on in the world?

10h – 10h25
· Calculation: fractions

10h25 – 11h
· Listening comprehension: songs about love. Theme choice: Fashion

9h – 11h
Technical reading about clothes.
Reading comprehension about famous designers in your country.
Speaking exercise about other famous designers that the pupils know.
Calculation exercises: buying clothes and calculating reductions.
Listening comprehension: documentary about the designer Gauthier

The second lesson plan combines linguistic learning goals with mathematical learning goals. It provides more context and allows students to work at their own pace.

2. Grouping students

You can group pupils using different criteria:

· Interest: at given moments, you can organize workshops in which students with the same interests come together;
· Level: level-groups make it easy to teach. However, pupils can feel stigmatized when they always belong to the same group;
· Heterogeneous grouping: in heterogeneous groups, more advanced students can help others. In cooperative structures students do not only achieve academic goals, it is also an excellent way to develop their social competences. They learn how to lead a group, how to moderate, how to take care of materials, how to respect the work of other students.
· Multi-age groups: very often, we group students according to their age. But there’s no need to do so. Younger kids learn fast when they can observe and imitate older ones. At given moments in the week, you can choose to compose multi-age groups.

3. Grouping teachers

There is talk of co-teaching when several education professionals together support a group of students in an equivalent relationship over a period of time in a structured way in achieving a set of learning objectives. They do so in the same or adjoining areas.

Co-teaching is a source of permanent professional development if the teachers who share their task also make time to consult together and to give each other feedback.
Co-teaching offers students increased space for personal attention and feedback. There is room for differentiated instruction, changing class arrangements, increased attention for students with additional support needs and students who need to be challenged.

4. Differentiation in different phases of the learning process

You can differentiate both in a divergent and a convergent way during the following three phases of the learning process:

Instruction (1) and processing (2) the subject matter

  • Classical instruction without differentiation.
  • Provide roadmaps with pictograms for the instruction.
  • Let students discover the assignment themselves and invite them to come to the instruction table if they need prolonged instruction.
  • Divide the class in 2 groups. Every group reads another assignment. Every student of group A explains his assignment to a student of group B, and vice versa.
  • Activating Direct Instruction: give a very structured instruction to your students. Test if they have understood (by a Google Form, a short quiz or test or a self-evaluation). Divide them into 3 groups:
    o Group A gets prolonged instruction with your help;
    o Group B works alone on the assignment;
    o Group C gets a more difficult assignment;
  • Provide options so students can choose how they want to acquire the new subject matter (for example through a video, roadmap, text or the observation of another student).

Evaluation (3)

  • Teacher centered evaluation: you decide how students will be evaluated.
  • Student centered evaluation: students can suggest how they want to be evaluated. For the learning goal “speaking in public”, they can choose about what they speak and when they organize their conference.
  • Voluntary halfway assessment: provide opportunities in which students can get your feedback on what they already did. Those moments are not obligatory: they can choose if they want to participate or not.
  • Self-assessment: let students scores themselves. Do their scores correspond with the teacher’s score?
  • Peer evaluation: let students give feedback on to classmates. Reflect with them on what can be good evaluation criteria.

5 - Dare to think ‘out of the box’

Always be focused on the goal:

  • What goal do I want to achieve with my students?
  • Which way leads to this?
  • To what extent does that differ for those pupils?

Think of this as a pilot. From a growth mindset and a positive view of young people you always keep your goal in mind. Then you determine the trajectory, and you determine all the aspects of the learning environment described above. The illustration below can help you to get acquainted with the different possibilities of differentiation.

the EDINA-cockpit