Q&A with Carol Ann Tomlinson
(extracted from: https://www.hbe.com.au/questions-with-carol-ann-tomlinson.html)
I like your model for differentiation as it is uncomplicated and makes sense. It incorporates the learning environment, relevant curriculum, effective assessment, clear instruction, and flexible classroom management. Good differentiation is good teaching and leads to effective learning.
Question: At the start of the academic year with new groups are there some specific strategies/approaches that you can suggest to help create the right Learning Environment to support effective differentiation?
Thanks, Jackie Houghton Bangkok Patana School Thailand
Jackie - To answer this question fully would take a whole book, so I’ll share a few thoughts about what’s at the core of creating a supportive learning environment. The most basic steps a teacher should take are to convey to the students a desire to know about them and to work diligently through internal reflections and actions in the classroom to let students know that each is valued and trusted. This has to be honest on the teacher’s part, or it won’t work.
Taking a few minutes to tell students about yourself or asking them to share their stories, standing at the door to greet them as they arrive, seeing them get off bus in the morning, using classroom examples that are interesting and relevant for students, and asking for their perspectives in a class discussion are all examples of actions that feed a supportive learning environment.
While those can serve as good first steps, everything that happens in the classroom either contributes to a positive learning environment or erodes it. When the teacher gives kids tasks to do, the classroom needs to be a safe place for kids to take risks and make mistakes, and the materials must be appropriate in light of kids’ needs. If we ask kids to do something challenging and we don’t give them a support system, we damage their trust in us. If we ask our students to believe we trust them but we’re wooden in our classroom discipline routines, that also contradicts a sense of trust. So the second part of creating a supportive learning environment is to be reflective by asking: What did I do today that supported the learning environment, and what did I do that eroded it?
Connect with students, understand your own thoughts and rationales for doing things, and remember that everything you do in your classroom shapes the environment.
Hi, Thanks for this opportunity. I have two questions:
a) What are the best assessment measures teachers can use so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability?
b) Also what would be the 5 main points to highlight to explain ‘Differentiation’ to parents?
Much appreciated. Brian, St John’s Lutheran School Geelong
Brian - In terms of differentiated instruction, preassessment and ongoing assessment, both of which are types of formative assessment, are the most powerful types of assessment. That’s because if they’re done right, they focus on precisely where kids are and where they need to go next. Formative assessment is like taking your students’ pulse. It gives you immediate information about what’s most important in their learning at any given time.
This presupposes that the teacher has clear learning goals and that the assessment is tightly aligned to those goals. I call those learning goals KUDs because the acronym spotlights what should be implicit in the goals: what students should know, understand, and be able to do as a result of a unit or lesson. You have to be very clear in your learning goals, your assessments must align with those goals, and your instruction must align with both your learning goals and your assessments. Formative assessments might take many different forms, like exit cards, journal prompts, or Frayer diagrams. The form isn’t particularly important; what matters is that assessment is ongoing and is tightly aligned with learning goals.
Formative assessment should be seen as opportunities to give students feedback and should be used to drive instruction. Clear, specific feedback that guides students is more supportive of learning than grades, and formative assessments can be occasions to give that critical feedback. What you learn from formative assessments about where students are in relation to learning goals guides how you modify instruction to respond to students’ different needs.
When talking with parents about differentiation, I would start by saying that it’s an honor to work with their kids. My experience in the classroom probably tells me what their parenting experience does: No two kids are alike. They all have things in common, like a need for success, but they also have differences that can really impact learning. I want to know their kids as learners as well as I can so that I can help them move forward as far and as fast as they can from their particular starting points. I hope parents will work with me to help me understand who their kids are, what’s working for their kids, and what’s not. My goal for their kids is to set high standards and then give strong support so they can reach those goals. That may mean they sometimes have to stretch a bit. Stretching is part of growing. I hope the parents will help their kids understand that. Because students have lots in common, sometimes we’ll all do the same thing, but because some people have different needs and interests, sometimes we’ll do different things. We’ll always work with the goal of everyone moving ahead as quickly and effectively as possible.
How can we use differentiation at VCE (higher school certificate) level when teachers are worried about meeting outcomes? These teachers cannot see the diversity in learners and their ability to meet the outcomes in different ways by making, showing, doing and saying.
Bernadette Cropper, Victoria
Bernadette - You’ve asked a good question because it raises a common misconception about differentiation. Curriculum standards are a curricular issue; they tell you what you teach. Differentiated instruction is an instructional issue; it focuses on how we teach. The goal of differentiation is to help more kids do better with set standards, not to change the standards you are teaching. The goals teachers have involving the content they teach would be the same goals for all students. What differentiation advocates is finding multiple ways for kids to reach those goals and to move beyond those goals when students are ready. We teach toward whatever our target is. When we’ve got curriculum standards to meet, we don’t change the target unless kids have really significant challenges which require us to work backwards to fill in gaps as well as move forward with new content. Whether a teacher in a differentiated classroom is focused on handling standards or dealing with high-stakes tests, the answer is the same: Rather than changing the target for different kids, you change the way kids interact with, make sense of, and express what they’re learning about those targets. So differentiation is an instructional model to help kids learn better, whatever the curriculum is.
Hello, my name is Kristine Simpson and I am a 2, 3, 4 teacher at Mount Magnet DHS in the Mid West of Western Australia. I have a majority indigenous class with a massive range of abilities from extremely low to extremely high literacy abilities. I also have transient, non attending students, students with English as a second language, students on behaviour management plans and an Autistic student. I would like to know I differentiate in my classroom as well as covering the new Australian Curriculum in a MAG classroom setting.
Many thanks, Kristine Simpson
Kristine - When thinking about differentiated instruction, some teachers feel that trying to implement it would slow them down too much, since they have so much to do when working with a broad range of students in their classes every day. It’s important to remember that the goal of differentiation is not to modify the curriculum for each student. Instead, the question is: How can we help the most kids achieve the goals in that curriculum? The first step would be what I discussed in my last response to Bernadette’s question: Rather than trying to change the curriculum, you consider different supports to help different students achieve the curricular goals.
A second issue that’s often a concern is the volume of curriculum that has to be addressed in a year and the idea that trying to differentiate might slow things down. It’s interesting to stop and think that if you had a task you wanted your students to complete in 15 minutes and you had two versions of the task for students to work on, completing the task would still take the class 15 minutes. Differentiation doesn’t slow things down. What slows things down is student-centeredness—giving kids time to make sense of new content, debate, try things out, and think deeply about big ideas. That’s when real learning happens.
The act of giving kids time to engage meaningfully with ideas is what stops the flow of a lecture and takes up time. Having two or three versions of an in-class assignment doesn’t make the assignment take any longer. If kids have the option of doing one of two homework assignments depending on where they need more practice, the assignment won’t take them extra time. It’s making time for students to learn deeply that takes more time. Wiggins and McTighe’s work on determining what content is really essential and focusing on teaching that, rather than trying to cover every tidbit mentioned in standards, might be a helpful resource for making decisions about prioritizing what to teach.
Hi, I am from Kangaroo Island Community Education in South Australia, a small rural area school with students of widely varying abilities. I attended Carol’s sessions at the HBE conference and was most impressed. Since returning, I have lost my motivation to implement differentiation as I am so bogged down with day to day teaching. What are the most simple and effective things I can do to address the different learning needs in my classroom on a daily basis with out spending excessive time after school setting them up?
Thank you, Linda Tippett
Linda - Low-preparation strategies are a great way to start differentiating. You might try something as simple as identifying two different websites for students to use during an Internet research project—one that’s written at a more readable level and a second that’s written at a more challenging level. One group of students works with one site and a second group works with the other. It might only take a few minutes to find a second website on the topic. Varying the materials you ask students to use can be very helpful for students and doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Small group instruction can also be a huge help. You might have one group of students working on an independent activity while you pull a second group to work with you in one corner of the room. Homework can be another simple way to start differentiating. You might think about a skill you want students to practice and find two different sets of problems to assign based on student skill level.
The advice we often give people is to choose three or four low-prep strategies like these in the beginning and use them frequently during the year. Then, every marking period, try to differentiate one lesson in a way that takes more time to plan. At the end of the year, you’ll have three or four differentiated lessons that involve higher-preparation strategies. The next year, use those high-prep lessons again, and add three or four new ones. If you do that for three or four years, you’ll have a great repertoire of differentiated lessons spread throughout the year and will feel more comfortable using them.
Teaching will never give us as much time as we’d like to try new things in our classrooms. Just as we sometimes have to challenge kids to take the first step and move in a productive direction, we also have to challenge ourselves as teachers to take the first steps toward accomplishing those things to which we aspire.
Hi Carol As a new graduate teacher having just completed my first semester as a grade 5 / 6 teacher I am finding it quite challenging developing strategies to attend to the needs of high performing students in the area of English Literacy. Differentiation at the lower to middle levels is something I have a better understanding of but I am challenged to come up with a structured program that supports the more developed students.
Matt - I certainly understand what you’re talking about because I was an English teacher for 20 years and appreciate the importance of having kids work at an appropriate challenge level. For many of us, the trick is to develop a way to think about what advanced rigor means and what it looks like. One tool that I use to think about what rigor looks like is the Equalizer.
The Equalizer is drawn to look like a stereo or CD player’s buttons, which listeners slide to adjust tone, volume, and balance. Those mechanisms are called equalizers. To differentiate for learner readiness, a teacher begins with focused instruction, then moves the buttons left or right based on a learner’s needs. As with a stereo, you don’t need to move all the buttons at the same time. As you design a differentiated task for higher readiness students, several of the Equalizer buttons might be moved to the right. For example, you might pose a fuzzy, multi-faceted problem to that group which asks them to think about a topic more abstractly than your tasks for other groups do. Or you might provide them with a task that’s more open-ended which requires more mental gymnastics to complete successfully.
Some specific strategies you may want to consider for challenging your higher readiness students are: asking them to use more advanced resources, increasing pace, presenting tasks that involve multiple concepts or skills, challenging students to consider varied viewpoints, requiring more in-depth study of a topic, asking students to identify seemingly unrelated connections among ideas, or asking students to complete developmentally appropriate tasks that approximate the work of real-world professionals.
What are some strategies to help teachers understand that differentiation is not just different worksheets but a way of thinking/approach to learning?
Regards, Colin Gallagher
Colin - You’ve made a good start just by stating this distinction. I would suggest using the five key principles of differentiation and building on them. Effective differentiation reflects five interdependent non-negotiables addressing learning environment, high-quality curriculum, ongoing assessment, the modification of instruction, and classroom management.
• An environment that actively supports students in the work of learning through a growth mindset, connections among the teacher and students, and a strong sense of community serves as the foundation of a differentiated classroom.
• Absolute clarity about a powerful learning destination and teaching up to help students reach that destination underlie high quality curriculum and promote student understanding and engagement.
• Continually knowing where students are in relation to the learning destination through ongoing assessment informs teacher instruction and provides students with meaningful feedback on their performance.
• Modifying instruction by addressing student readiness, interest, and learning profile helps ensure that each student arrives at the learning destination, and moves beyond it when possible.
• Effective leadership and management of a classroom allow different students to work on different things at different times smoothly through the use of flexible classroom routines.
I would present differentiated instruction to teachers through these principles and talk about the likelihood, which most teachers can see, that addressing these five non-negotiables is far more robust than giving students different worksheets. Additionally, giving students worksheets typically conflicts with several of those principles, like giving students work that engages them as part of high quality curriculum. This way of thinking is based on our experience and research in the classroom; nothing suggests that a steady diet of worksheets enhances achievement or a love of learning at all. You’re ahead of the game if you see the distinction. Continuing to interact with teachers by keeping that distinction at the forefront will be helpful.
Hello Carol, Many teachers see the benefit of differentiation in the classroom but have difficulty visualising what it might look like. We watched some excellent clips at your presentation that set my creative mind on the right path. Can I access them to give my staff the same visual example to get going?
Thankyou! Vikki Walkom, Golden Grove High School, South Australia
Vikki - It would be lovely to be able to say—here they are. Unfortunately, they are copyrighted. They were produced at considerable expense by ASCD and are available for purchase from that organization. It will probably be more feasible for schools to purchase the videos than individuals because the videos tend to be expensive. Depending on what session you attended, you may have seen clips from the video A Visit to a Differentiated Classroom, which features a multi-age classroom of third and fourth graders, or clips from the video At Work in the Differentiated Classroom, which shows a month-long unit on writer’s voice in a middle school English class.
Hi Carol, How do we move from one unit of work to another in the differentiated classroom? I teach senior school in South Australia and the courses and curriculum are set by the state government. In the differentiated class room how do we move onto a new topic when most of the class are ready for the next unit while some students have not finished or grasped the previous work. This is after scaffolding students who need extra help. Currently I start the whole class on to the next topic when: the timeline dictates & when most students are ready. I ask those students who have not finished the work from the previous unit to meet me outside of class time and set them homework. I work at a fair pace. However this does not suit some students who can work faster to gain a more 'in depth' understanding and it does not suit those students who need extra time and additional tasks to help them through the work.
Maggie Savage, Victor Harbor High School, South Australia
Maggie - I would agree that you have to move ahead when most of the class is ready for the next unit. Much of differentiation involves teaching forward and backwards at the same time. As you’ve experienced, it’s probably not feasible to say the goal is to have two dozen kids master everything in a unit at the same time. You’ll have to do some backward teaching during the new unit to help them continue to learn what they didn’t get in the last unit, as it sounds you’re already doing. You might also consider doing backward teaching through differentiated homework assignments or during class time. You could have students work independently on differentiated learning contracts, work with you through small group instruction, move through different learning centers, or practice different skills on computer programs.
The trick is to be crystal clear on your learning goals. When setting them for each unit, you must determine what is absolutely essential for students to know, understand, and be able to do as they move forward, as opposed to what would be nice to know if there were more time. When you move ahead to a new unit, you continue to teach backwards for students who did not reach those essential goals in a previous unit.
My questions in reference to differentiation for Carol Ann are:
1. How do you manage differentiation in a class of 25 and adequately meet the needs of every student?
2. How do you differentiate the tasks and still enable students to meet the standard?
3. What is the best way to extend students without giving them more work?
4. When using open spaces for teaching and learning, what is the best way to approach differentiated instruction?
5. Is the focus of differentiation to show progression in every student and add value, rather than having them achieve the designated standard?
Thanks for the opportunity to ask these. Kristine Wolfe - Malloo Assistant Sub-school Leader, Alkira Secondary College
1. I’d suggest you read a book or watch a video on managing a differentiated classroom, since there are a number of specific strategies which address that concern. The idea is to use the classroom resources of time, space, materials, and you as a teacher flexibly. To make a flexible classroom run efficiently, it’s important to teach kids to understand the rationale for differentiation and to be active partners in the elements of classroom management. When students understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and see its benefit for themselves, they are willing partners in your work. Differentiation balances flexibility and predictability. The predictable routines in our classrooms lead us to the flexibility needed to make a differentiated classroom work. You might consider reading Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom or watching the ASCD video At Work in the Differentiated Classroom which focuses in part on management.
2. Please see my responses to Bernadette and Kristine.
3. Please see my response to Matt. Your question makes an important point. Quantitative differentiation is not helpful; just giving higher readiness students more to do than other students doesn’t work. Instead, teachers in a differentiated classroom who are designing different versions of tasks for students with different readiness levels focus on varied degrees of challenge while the learning goals stay the same for all students.
4. Open space in a differentiated classroom works well. The space can be used flexibly, allowing students to use a variety of resources and work in different configurations. It’s important to convey to students that everybody in the classroom works together as a team, and it can be helpful to explain the reasons behind a particular use of space to students. You can ask students to help you develop the routines the class will use in organizing the space by identifying what their jobs should be and how the classroom will look when things are going well. It’s also helpful to have students evaluate their execution of different routines from time to time and practice how to move through them more efficiently.
5. I don’t know what else we can do in teaching other than aim for each student to progress. Our goal should always be having kids move further and faster than they think they can. If we had the goal of maximum learning for every kid, we’d do a lot better than trying to get most kids just to the point of the finish line and not beyond. The truth is that in a classroom where students’ needs are not attended to, the chances they will go as fast and as far as they can are slim. Where their needs are robustly attended to, the chances are much higher. What that means for one student is different than what that means for another student. Some students start the year already beyond the goals. They need to keep going. Some students start the year far behind and should also be supported to move ahead from their starting points. Not every kid may reach every goal every year. We hope they will, but it may be that they don’t in light of where they started. It’s a balance. There’s merit to having common goals, but a child shouldn’t be a failure because she didn’t meet a certain goal at a certain time.