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Why Differentiation is Important

If you are an educator reading this article then the word differentiation should be familiar to you. All effective teachers are aware of the importance of differentiating their curriculum a thousand times a day without (possibly) even truly realising how often. 

In particular, special education teachers are the cream of the crop when it comes to differentiation.  This does not mean (or at least should not mean) that they differentiate any more than a general classroom teacher. Differentiating your curriculum and pedagogy is not just for those students with learning difficulties and disabilities. In fact, if you have more than one student in your class, then you too, will be (should be) differentiating your curriculum.  

Differentiation can be based on making adjustments to routine, resources or ways of working. For instance, one student requires an immersive text-to-speech tool to have his class work read to him.  Another uses talk-to-text because writing or typing anything is outside their ability level. Then there is the student who gets anxious when there is too much noise, requiring noise cancelling headphones and short video clips to aid his learning rather than being in a classroom with other students.  One student needs a stand-up desk and a list of what to do beside his work so he can be more effective in working through his learning. His to-do list can be no longer than three items at any one time (otherwise it becomes overwhelming). This is a typical day in the life of a special needs teacher. You can see why they are (out of necessity and passion) experts at understanding how differentiating works.  

While this is on the extreme end of the scale, most general classroom teachers, to some extent, are doing this every day in their classroom too. It is called effective pedagogy through differentiation. Otherwise known as teaching. It is part of the job and it’s challenging, but that doesn’t mean it has to be overwhelming. There are a few simple ways to make this whole ‘adapting-to-suit-your-learners’ thing work without feeling like you are never completely under control as a classroom teacher.  Let’s be honest – control is a teacher’s middle name (don’t deny it… embrace it). Here are some strategies to make differentiation work for you, in your classroom.  

Know Your Students 

While this seems an obvious by-product of being a teacher, being intentional and specific about knowing your students is crucial.  Obviously at the beginning of a school year, you don’t usually know them very well so getting to know your students takes some time. Before you meet them, ask other teachers, read their previous reports, have a look at previous schoolwork if you can access it and speak to their parents (if possible). This will give you a head start on getting to know your students and help you to better plan for effective teaching and assessment.

Knowing your students needs, what works best for them and what will give them the best chance to succeed as a confident learner – this is what will make differentiating your curriculum so much easier and more effective.  

Once you know that this student requires noise cancelling headphones and that student will need a break every thirty minutes – your planning for the year, the term, the week, the day – will be much more beneficial. You and your students will be less frustrated and your classroom productivity will increase. Winning!

Lean on Your Colleagues 

I don’t (of course) mean to actually lean on your colleagues (although if you are exhausted, perhaps it might be a better option than falling over).  I mean, work with your colleagues to share ideas and resources.  If you have a student (or seven) working at levels below, go to the teacher in those year levels and ask if you can access and share their planning and resources for that ability level.  Don’t reinvent the wheel, just resize it to fit. 

Sharing really is caring and allows a differentiated curriculum to happen seamlessly. And yes, before you say it, there are ‘those’ teachers who become rather precious of ‘their’ planning and ‘their’ ideas and resources. As professionals our goal is to provide learning experiences and opportunities for all learners and working together. Leaning on each other allows us to do that more effectively. Be a team player, it’s about the students. 

Be Open Minded 

I have fallen in this trap myself.  As teachers we can get stuck in our ways.  I have caught myself out with the attitude of ‘this is how I have always done it so this is how it will get done’.  And when the going gets tough and we are under the pump, we can also adopt the attitude of ‘near enough is good enough’. 

It is easy to become comfortable in what we do, however, we need to be aware of this and not be ok with such a mindset. In fact, really, if your students change every year so should your planning, your resources and your pedagogy and even the set up of your classroom.  We expect to be treated and regarded as professionals and being open minded, flexible and adaptive is what a true professional is.  

Always ask yourself these three questions: 

  • What does success for this child, in this learning area, at this time actually look like?  
  • How do I need to teach to help this child achieve success? 
  • What resources do I need to use to help this child achieve success? 

Accept It 

Differentiation or differentiated curriculum is not the latest buzz word.  It is just the word being bandied about that actually defines what we should have always been doing in the first place.  In some form or another, I believe most teachers would be using differentiation to meet the needs of their learners. Where differentiation is not happening, I can guarantee that there are learners in that space who will be missing out.  We are not to create a box for our students to fit in.  We are to build individual boxes around them so they all fit, no matter what size or shape. Or better still, show them how to create the box and get out of the way.

We need to accept this is our every day reality as teachers. This is our role. Teaching is not for the weak – we are strong, open minded, flexible, sharing, passionate professionals who will not let a learner fall between the cracks while in our care.  Of course we differentiate, we are teachers!