How Sharing Control of Learning with Students Makes Differentiation Better

Too often, differentiation (especially when it’s called differentiated instruction) places nearly all of the responsibility and work for differentiation in the teacher’s court. This often results in teachers feeling like they need to create separate activities and lessons for different groups of students in their class, resulting in an overwhelming workload. It’s hard enough to prepare one lesson for a classroom, forget about five! Yet we know that we have learners in our classrooms with diverse needs. Some may need more or less challenging work and many may benefit from varied learning structures or modalities. The move toward personalization can make this task seem even more overwhelming for teachers. Now we’re supposed to come up with not five but twenty-five different learning experiences–one for each student?

Of course, there’s no realistic way that anyone can do this on their own. The good news for most teachers is that we are not alone–we have a whole classroom full of students who can help great differentiation happen! This might sound a bit scary–sharing control of differentiation with our students, but it doesn’t have to be.

Using Choice as a Vehicle for Self-Differentiation

One way to do this is to give students some options for how or what they will learn and then help them make a good choice. Here are some examples of using choice to help students self-differentiate learning that I’ve seen in classrooms in the past few months:

Reading, third grade: Students were all practicing the skill of looking at character development in reading workshop. Each student used a “just right” fiction book of their choice to examine how characters change over the course of a story.

Spanish, high school: Before finishing a unit, students each needed to practice a few different skills. They had four activities to choose from, each that would help them practice one of four skills: reading, writing, speaking, or listening.

Math, kindergarten: Students were practicing making combinations of 5-10. They got to use snap cubes, play “bears in a cave”, or use playing cards to create numbers at their appropriate level of challenge.

Science, high school: Students chose from several sets of tasks to create their own summative assessment–tasks that would help demonstrate their proficiency on several standards.

Calculus, high school: Check out the cool picture below. This is a “heat map.” The cooler colors indicate differential equations that are easier to solve and the warmer pink color shows more challenging problems. Students chose problems to practice and then adjusted their level of challenge using the colors as a guide.

A Few More Resources

Choice can help teachers manage some of the more challenging differentiation situations: assessments and homework. To learn more about how students can self-differentiate during these times, check out these two Edutopia articles!

A Little Help with Your Homework

Using Quick Check-Ins to Measure Student Understanding

In March of 2017, I had the honor of meeting (finally!) and chatting with Robyn Jackson, rock-star education leader and author, and we talked about this idea of self-differentiation. You can check out our conversation, below!

If you’d like to do a deep-dive into the idea of self-differentiation, there are two books that I’ve written that you might want to check out:

The Research-Ready Classroom: Differentiating Instruction Across the Curriculum

Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn: The Key to Student Motivation and Achievement

When we share power and control of learning with students, when we teach them how to self-direct their learning and nurture their sense of ownership and agency, students can more deeply invest themselves in their learning. We also then don’t have to be the sole vehicle for differentiating learning for students. In the end, differentiation will be so much more effective and impactful if students themselves have a hand in crafting their own learning experiences. I encourage you to give it a try!