Differentiation – supporting students as individuals and valuing student voice.

Differentiation means tailoring the teaching and learning to meet individual student needs. It is the ability to modify and adapt within your classroom in several main areas. These include the content, process, products and the environment, as well as assessment and flexible grouping.

Teachers in many countries I visit and work with are not as fortunate as many of us who work with a flexible curriculum which gives us freedom of how we deliver it. The necessity to differentiate the learning in our classrooms not only is facilitated by this freedom, it is also an important step away from teaching to the average, the one size fits all education and valuing each student as a unique person.

An underlying factor in successful differentiation is the mindset of your learners. If they believe they do not have the capacity for growth, the ability to learn and improve, and have what Carol Dweck refers to as a ‘fixed mindset’ then a teacher’s effort might be in vain.

It is recommended you spend time explicitly building students learning capacity, helping them understand the learning process as well as modelling and promoting a growth mindset before you launch into a personalised learning programme. Once students know themselves as a learner, your differentiation efforts are far more likely to gain more traction.


Differentiating the content

As the teacher, you decide what the big ideas, learning intentions, skills, or concepts all students are required to understand and know. This is likely to come from your curriculum documents. For example, in literacy, one learning goal is to understand opposing forces and morals by analysing and writing fables. While all students will be unpacking texts and designing their own fable, through whole group instruction, you can individualise the content depending on the student’s ability and next steps in their learning. For example, some learners may be working on character development while others are practising adding speech into their text. Other learners may be working on sentence or paragraph formation, and still more working on using adjectives to describe the setting. Different skills can be taught in small withdrawal groups, mini-workshops or during coaching sessions.

You may have some students within your field of study, go off and conduct a mini project on a parallel topic or theme to give depth of understanding to their learning.

Providing choice within the content is another way to differentiate learning. For example, if students are exploring technological changes in sport, then the sport and the technology might be selected by the student (or a small group of students.) In history, you could give students different time periods to explore, which will be shared with the class in a presentation format.

Another way to differentiate content is to know your students’ likes and interests. A colleague I worked with had three boys in his classroom who adored WWF and was able to use this knowledge to motivate them in maths by using their ‘heroes’ as examples.

Differentiating the Process

The process is how students make sense of information and their learning. Readiness is an important consideration at this step. What can they do, and know and what are their next learning steps?

Knowing your students and them having awareness of their personal learning preferences will support differentiating the process. Provide choice through instructional methods. You might host discussion groups, engage learners with videos and/or provide experiences. For example, when studying a novel, give students the choice to read the text (hardcopy or in e-book format) or listen to the audiobook. Station rotation learning can work well here too.

Give students choice about whether they work alone, in pairs or in small groups. Ensure your students have insights into your expectations of working with others.

Other useful tools whilst giving the process options is to use reflective practices such as a think-pair-share, or journaling to allow students to reflect on their learning and if the process was useful or not. This will provide more data and information about their personal learning preferences to strengthen their learning abilities further.

Differentiating the Product

Giving students a choice about how they display or present their learning is one of the easiest ways to differentiate in the classroom. The purpose of the product is to apply what they can do, extend their understanding and skill, become involved in critical and creative thinking and to reflect on what they have learned.

There are 101 ways to show you know. Products may vary in complexity depending on the student and where their next learning steps are. It is important to note here, that if you expect students to design a poster to show their understanding of a topic, it is essential you give them parameters and/or explicit instructions on what a successful poster contains. That is to say, have clear academic criteria that students understand for the product choice. You may also want to consider the product being in line with the content you are teaching. A student once reported to me it took her two hours to learn the science content to a level, she felt it was fully understood and then 12 hours to make the required short video to show her understanding. Unless it was an integrated unit with the digital tech teacher, she may have been able to use those 12 hours more productively on more focused learning.

Give students three or four options to show their understanding and you may wish to add a student choice option that needs to be negotiated with the teacher. I have a class rule which says if you made a podcast last time, you need to choose another way to show what you know this time. Students who really want to refine their learning of product delivery, such as improving their podcast skills, can negotiate with extended criteria to show growth in this area.

Differentiating the Environment

Environmental preferences such as where students work and learn is another simple shift to provide choice. This includes having spaces for students to spread out, a quiet area, a place for students to work alone or in groups. It might include an area for performance or discussion.

What is important is that you, as the teacher, continually work towards making your classroom a safe place for learners. A place where students feel safe enough to ask questions, be vulnerable, try new ideas, make mistakes, and risk failure. This takes time by getting to know your students, being consistent, building positive relationships, etc.

Differentiating Assessment

The purpose of providing differing assessment options is to personalise the learning and allow students to use prior knowledge and work on their next steps of learning.

For example, if you have a rubric with ten criteria you can have some students work on all ten or give them a choice of four they want to be assessed on and you choose four that you will mark. (Make sure they know which four you have chosen!) In this way, you can easily personalise the assessment. You may have some students only focused on two or three of the criteria. It all depends on your educational outcomes and goals for them.

The key is to make criteria explicit and measurable and ask students to self-assess against the criteria before you assess them.

Ask your students

Perhaps one of the best ways to create a differentiated classroom is to ask your learners. My favourite way to do this is to give each student two different colours of postit notes – one the blue one invite them to write something they perceive you do well as a teacher. On the second postit, record one thing they believe you can improve and do better at. This can be insightful and scary all at the same time.

Another way is to share with your students the outcomes for your next unit or piece of work. Invite your learners to consider and share how they might make this the best, coolest, most fun project or unit ever. It always astounds me how creative and insightful they can be!

Being able to differentiate the learning in your classroom ensures students have their voices heard and is a step towards helping them become self-directed learners. It is empowering for learners and a great way to help them stretch and grow.


Published on Sunday, May 1st, 2022, under Curriculum design, Learning

Karen Tui Boyes is a champion for Life Long Learning across nations, industries and organisations. Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2017 and 2014 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013 & 2019, Karen is a sought after speaker who continually gets rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content—which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques — sets her apart from others in her field.

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