My Understanding of Differentiation

“You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya, Princess Bride


It is definately an educational buzzword. Like many buzzwords, people use it without thinking too much about what it means, or what it looks like. I was talking to another teacher who is being encouraged to differentiate instruction for her students about some of the things I do in my classroom. Finally, she interupted me and asked “What does choice have to do with differentiation?”

So, let’s start with a working definition. I like this one from Chapman and Gregory:

“Differentiation is a philosophy that enables teachers to plan strategically in order to reach the needs of the diverse learners in classrooms today.”

It is a philosophy, not a strategy in and of itself.  Differentiation is the basic belief that students have different strengths/weaknesses, different interests, and different levels of background knowledge and that that belief should mold our teaching.

You can differentiate:

  • Content – what you teach
  • Process – how you teach it/students learn it
  • Assessment – how students demonstrate what they learn

I feel choice is an important part of differentiation because it is a motivator. Don’t you like having a choice? Students do too – and many strategies for implementing differentiation involve menus or contracts which are choice based.

Right now, I mainly use low prep ways to differentiate. I do informal pre-assessments to differentiate instruction, offer choices to differentiate product, keep anchor activities at the ready for students who work quickly.

How do you differentiate in your classroom?

For further reading:


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