Differentiation vs. Tracking

I recently had a reader ask me to clarify the difference between tracking and differentiation. I said that tracking refers to the systematic grouping of students into classes based on their overall achievement. By contrast, differentiated instruction is the adjusting of lesson activities and tasks for students in a single class who are at different levels. 

Students grouped for an activity by ability level.

Students grouped for an activity by ability level.

Most teachers face the daunting task of teaching a wide range of skill levels in a single class. They must stimulate and engage intellectually gifted students, while simultaneously scaffolding curriculum to support students at a lower level. This delicate balance is what many argue separates the best teachers from the herd.

Differentiated instruction involves assessing individual students to determine where they are in terms of content knowledge or skill level, then using a variety of strategies to effectively create curriculum that is, in effect, individualized.

Teachers may use any of the following strategies to differentiate instruction in a given class:  

  • Design curriculum of varied complexity
  • Use a variety grouping strategies
  • Modify expectations for outcomes
  • Tailor delivery
  • Provide tiered projects
  • Use technology/adaptive software to personalize practice 

Differentiated instruction excites the brilliant student to uncover deeper layers of learning, while simultaneously structuring curriculum to support lower level students or students with learning disabilities–both identified and unidentified.

Just as consumers know that a one-size-fits-all won’t work when buying a pair of jeans, educators know that one standard approach to teaching will not meet the needs of all–or even most–students. Without an attempt to vary instruction to meet the individual needs of each student, the curriculum is bound to bore some and baffle others.  Differentiating instruction is the key to reaching all students.

Do you have tips or strategies you have found useful differentiating your instruction? If so, please post a comment and share them!


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Invest in Innovation

“We need great teachers!” I frequently hear this war cry for improving schools. The insinuation is that great teachers can fix what’s wrong with our education system. However, in the last 5 months I’ve gotten a crash course in just how challenging it is for a single teacher to make meaningful change at a school or district level. I’ve spent the last five months filling out forms, writing course descriptions, meeting with decision makers, attending site council and board meetings, responding to a barrage of emails, and jumping through the necessary hoops to get a new program off the ground for next year.

Here’s what I’ve learned…schools and districts might like the idea of being progressive and innovative, but innovation requires two essential ingredients that are beyond my control as a teacher: financial investment and the desire to change.

If education is going to continue to evolve and improve, school districts must be willing to invest in new innovative programs. It’s not enough to keep funding the status quo. I’d love to see districts earmark funding specifically for innovation and experimentation. Schools make it clear what they value by where they spend money. If we say we value innovation, then we need to support that statement with funding.

When my first presentation to request funding for alternative furniture to enhance the project-based philosophy of this new program was met with skepticism instead of excitement, I wrote a Donors Choose project for moveable furniture. I spent hours working on that project proposal and sending it out via my social networks. As I worked on it, I wondered if most people outside of education realize how much time and money most teachers spend out of their own reservoir of resources to create their ideal classrooms.

This process has also reminded me how important it is for decision makers to move beyond their fear and embrace experimentation. I realize that change is scary, but it’s becoming more and more clear that schools need to change to stay relevant and meet the needs of today’s learners. Schools and districts with enthusiastic and knowledgeable teachers should celebrate and support those individuals. It’s too easy to allow fear of the unknown to stifle innovation and limit the potential of forward thinking educators. The only way to keep those “great teachers” is to allow them to do great things. Otherwise, they will move onto other opportunities.

I see incredible teachers leave the classroom every year to pursue more financially lucrative opportunities. In fact, in my work beyond the classroom as a trainer and speaker, I’m often asked, “Why are you still teaching?” My response, “Teaching is my favorite job!” Well, working with my students and designing curriculum are my favorite jobs…the rest of teaching is exhausting and, at times, frustrating. I stay because I love what I do, but I can imagine being driven from this profession by all of the bureaucracy that makes change so glacial.

As this year comes to a close, I am simultaneously planning for the beginning of next year. Instead of enjoying the satisfying sense of closure that comes with the end of a year and sense of a job well done, I’m staring at a long to-do list of items that needs to get done to bring a new program to life by August. Figuring out how to fund alternative furniture and make sure students have access to technology rests squarely on my shoulders. It’s a daunting prospect. I understand why so many excited, forward thinking teachers get frustrated and leave this profession in search of spaces where their creativity is valued and celebrated.

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Future of Reading & Writing Lightning Talk at Stanford University

On Monday, May 16th I delivered a Lightning Talk at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education on the future of reading and writing. My talk explores how technology is creating a growing divide between the classroom and life beyond. In my talk, I share specific strategies and tools educators can use to teach reading and writing for today’s students.

Note: 59 minutes into the video is a panel discussion about the future of reading and writing.

For tips on teaching reading and writing with technology, check out my latest book Creatively Teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology!

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