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Myths About Differentiation

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Yes, Differentiation Is Hard. So, Let’s Get It Right” by
Lisa Westman in Education Week, August 11, 2016,
In this Education Week article, Illinois instructional coach Lisa Westman acknowledges that differentiation is challenging but says there are several myths that make it seem more difficult than it needs to be:
• Myth #1: Differentiation means I have to plan something different for every student. Not so, says Westman. Curriculum standards can be a springboard for relevant, skills-based learning experiences that take into account the class’s interests and learning levels. Pre-assessments are helpful for grouping students, and ongoing checks for understanding can help fine-tune lessons as a unit progresses.
• Myth #2: Differentiation means grouping students by reading ability and giving them texts at their level. This may seem like differentiation, says Westman, but it’s really tracking. “Leveled texts don’t necessarily address the specific needs of students, which are often unrelated to reading ability,” she says. “All students deserve access to challenging and interesting material. Differentiation comes into play with how students interact with text… The same text can be used by most students by compacting the curriculum for high-achievers and scaffolding for students who need more support… Differentiate the process (task) and product (how learning is demonstrated) for students.”
• Myth #3: It’s possible to differentiate using one data point. Impossible, says Westman. Teachers need to use a variety of ongoing, high-quality assessments to take into account students’ cognitive and affective needs.
• Myth #4: One way to differentiate is giving high-achieving students more work and low-achieving students less. “Differentiation is not more or less,” says Westman. “Think quality over quantity. It is quite possible that one high-level question is more challenging than twenty low-level questions.”
• Myth #5: Differentiation is too hard! “Don’t beat yourself up,” says Westman. “You are not alone.” Work with an instructional coach or a colleague. Join a book study group and try something together. Use social media to build a professional learning network.

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