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Serving students individually through differentiation

TUESDAY, JANUARY 06, 2015 10:48 AM

While the Common Core State Standards list uniform educational goals for each student to achieve in every grade, the students themselves are rarely standard. Rather, each individual is better in some classroom topics than others, making for a classroom with a slightly bumpy playing field. The Common Core provides benchmarks that will hopefully bring students to the same level, but some will always learn faster than others. This leaves teachers with the difficult task of providing a challenging education for every student, no matter how quickly he or she progresses. Differentiation is a teaching technique that assesses which students are more advanced or need help, and provides a unique education for the individuals. However, implementing this ideal method is a major challenge.

About differentiation
Differentiated instruction acknowledges that classrooms contain students who are at different levels. Some may be better at reading than others, for instance. What's more, differentiation attempts to find a way to ensure every student is being adequately challenged. To do that, teachers must complete these steps:

  1. Identify different learning levels in the classroom and see where each student falls - to accomplish this, educators have to see what students already understand and what they still need to learn. Perhaps some didn't learn all the Common Core benchmarks for the previous grade and need to be brought up to speed.
  2. Employ several methods of assessment - some students struggle with testing but understand the subject. To ensure bright students don't get poor grades because they struggle with testing, teachers can also assign papers and projects. No matter what method students excel in showing their progress, they have a chance to succeed.
  3. Introduce complexity to the classroom by providing varying content according to students' educational needs. 

Difficulties of implementation
Differentiation may sound great as a concept - students learn information suited to their abilities, ensuring that high achievers are challenged and struggling students get help -  but implementing the model is much easier said than done. In order to use differentiated instruction, teachers have to multitask constantly. They have to always be aware of how well students grasp classroom content and have a plan for teaching several groups simultaneously. 

According to a report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 83 percent of teachers indicated that implementing differentiated instruction is either "somewhat" or "very" difficult. In addition to multitasking, Education Week pointed out that teachers aren't always sure what to differentiate. They want to go off the Common Core-aligned curriculum, so should they vary their teaching strategies from student to student? The method sounds good in theory, but needs more definition in practice. That's not to say it's impossible, only that it needs definition and teachers require training.