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Differentiation: The Learning Needs of All Children as Part of the Original Instructional Design

About twenty years ago, a colleague asked me to take his place presenting at a public school professional development day. The topic, “Differentiated Instruction,” was a term I had heard but could not define. For this reason, I should have said, “No, I cannot do that training because I don’t know the first thing about that!” But instead I heard myself say, “I’d be happy to do it.” Then I spent every penny of my speaking fee on teacher resources on the topic. 

When the box of books, articles, and videos about differentiated instruction arrived at my house, I dug right in.  Not more than an hour into my reading, I felt a knot deep in my stomach as it was dawning on me that this thing called “differentiated instruction” was possibly just an excuse—a hollow justification—for ability grouping! We have known for years that ability grouping can damage the spirits of children, and so I was concerned: Had I agreed to do a full-day training on a practice that felt wrong and counterintuitive to the idea of creating a welcoming classroom where all students feel valued? 

But I kept reading the perspectives of many authors on the subject and watched videos of differentiated classrooms. Eventually, my first impression (that this was a fast-track back to the Bluebird Reading Series) changed, and I began to see the big picture of differentiation. I started to read about access—all children having access to the social and academic curriculum—and I started to understand that access to the general education curriculum is very different than curricular modification. I learned that differentiation means that adults do whatever it takes to make the instruction, assessment, and environment different in some way—different in just the perfect way—for every child, so that all children can learn. 

Today, I consider differentiation as the starting point for the intellectual work of teaching. When I conduct teacher training on the topic, I no longer need to spend my speaking fee on resources. I’ve worked with enough teachers, teacher interns, and colleagues to feel confident helping educators understand that differentiation is a habit of mind—not a teaching strategy. And I have found that one of the best ways to help people learn this is to wear my red bathrobe during my presentations. 

Honestly, the robe has become a bit of a professional habit (albeit a cry for a fashion intervention) and a part of “the act.” I line up a few chairs to look like a bed, put my feet up, and pretend that I am not feeling well. I ask my audiences to imagine that I am a fourth grade classroom teacher who woke up with a headache, sore throat, and a fever requiring I call in sick to school. I tell them to imagine I am a good teacher who is rarely out (that is the good news) and, for this reason, has not left a folder of sub plans (that is the bad news). In addition, they should imagine that the principal—who knows some of the children in my class, but not all—has kindly agreed to draft some sub plans for me, and sends me a copy as a courtesy. 

My teapot is whistling; I make a cup of lemon-ginger tea with honey and settle onto the couch with my laptop. My head is pounding, but of course I want to see what will be happening today in my classroom, so I open the sub plans for my class. There are goals, and of course they are aligned with standards. There are assessments, and of course they are aligned with goals. And there are interesting resources and materials—all engaging learning opportunities. The content is developmentally appropriate for fourth grade; but as I lay back and imagine the day, I know in my heart that it won’t work. 

Mariah will not be able to do that math sheet on her own, and she will likely be frustrated enough by it that when she gets to the art room, I predict she will fall apart emotionally. With adult support, she would be able to do the work, but I am not sure the sub will know to do this until it’s too late. Mariah is fully capable of learning this math—she just gets overwhelmed easily, so she needs emotional support to take it step-by-step and build on each small success. 

Ralph will love the magnets, but in a small work group he may not be able to learn much about them. He wants a friend more than anything, and he may just play and be silly to get the attention of the other kids. He makes cognitive connections rather quickly, so if he were able to explore the magnets and the investigation questions alone prior to the instructional time, he would be able to accomplish both the content learning and have the social opportunity. But he doesn’t have an IEP that says this—or any note anywhere that says this—so it is unlikely the sub will provide him with this kind of support. 

Jon will be so happy for silent reading time because he has just begun to “break the code” of reading books written in English.  Anyone who knows him can see the sweet smile on his face while he confidently reads text at the appropriate reading level. But the sub plans state that all children will be given a Greek myth to read. This is not a bad idea—in fact, Greek mythology is identified in our curriculum standard—but it may take all of the decoding wind out of Jon’s sails, making him feel like a struggling reader once again. 

And Shayla will not be able to participate in the group brainstorm about democracy and voting if they don’t program her communication device ahead of time with her thoughts and ideas.

And Anna needs to do that office errand at snack time to get the little movement break she needs before math.

And Pablo needs to share his sophisticated insights about our class read-aloud orally—not in writing. If he is forced to write in his reading journal, he will likely just record simple sentences—not a true assessment of his comprehension.

I close the laptop, lean back on the couch, and take a sip of tea. I realize that this very solid day of instructional plans written by a wonderful school principal is going to result in a difficult day of learning for many of the children in my classroom. Even if the substitute teacher is a master teacher, this will be true. Why? 

Because teaching is not delivering curriculum; teaching is connecting curriculum and children. If the teacher has not studied the learning needs of the children on a daily basis, and educational teams do not know all children well, connecting curriculum to children is less likely to happen. In an ideal classroom, using an MTSS (Multi-Tier System of Supports) model and perhaps a co-teaching approach, all hands will be on deck supporting all students—especially on the day the teacher is out! But still, as the classroom leader—home on the couch—I am imagining each of my students journeying through this day of sub plans and I am a little worried. 

As a classroom teacher who knows her class well, I cannot let this day happen as planned. So I draw a vertical line down a piece of paper, and list the instructional plan on the left side. On the right side, I make notes about the learning needs that my students will likely have today. To do this, I consider the lesson and then each child, asking myself, “What will it take for this child to learn from this lesson?” Even with a headache, I can identify fairly well what each child will need in order to access the learning at each and every point of this day. I can list which children need more time to learn, and which need less. Some children need to work deeper, have advance notice of things, be with a peer, not be with a peer, take a walk to let off energy, have augmentative communication support, use different materials, use assistive technology, be paired with a friend, be helped to make a friend, or be given a piece of fruit at snack time. If I was at school, I would be able to make sure that all of these learning supports were included in the day’s plans. Instead, I send the list to the principal for the substitute teacher. 

Differentiation means:

* thinking about an instructional plan and imagining how each child will fare;
* determining what each child needs in order to learn (i.e., What will it take?); and
* building those learning supports into the instructional design, and/or changing the instructional design to incorporate those needs. 

Differentiation is the matching of the child and the curriculum by someone who has expertise with both. This matching of curriculum and children is done prior to instruction. It’s not remediation after students show us they are confused. It’s not enrichment after students show us they are bored. It’s not emotional support after students show us their anxiety. Differentiation is mapping out plans for learning in such a child-specific way that even if the classroom leader is home in her/his bathrobe, children will have the necessary supports for learning, because those supports are incorporated into the instructional design. 

- Susan Shapiro

I am a teacher. I began as a self-contained special education teacher, who learned in one year that "mainstreaming" is a toxic model that teaches children that belonging is conditional, and something that must be earned. So I became a classroom teacher for first and second graders, and fully included students with disabilities in my class. I made huge errors (which will be described in future blogs) but I realized that at least kids with disabilities were in the right place----the general education classroom with their peers. Then I became one of New Hampshire's first Inclusion Facilitators, back in the late 1980's. Later I worked at the Institute on Disability doing teacher training, technical assistance, professional writing and lots of thinking: How do we build schools so that all children are valued and have full access to all social and academic learning? I still think about this everyday. I don't know the complete answer, but I think part of the answer is increasing the capacity of general education teachers to teach children with disabilities. So, now my job is coordinating a graduate-level elementary teacher preparation program at Plymouth State University. By design, our program has no courses in "special education", but we have lots of courses about diversity, supports and accommodations, and differentiating instruction, assessment, and environment. I consult with school teams interested in learning designs that provide all children access to all learning. I can be reached at: sashapiro@plymouth.edu